Monday, 29 November 2010

Don't Porsche Your Luck

'..and news just in from our state the obvious correspondent. Porsche have confirmed the worst kept secret in Stuttgart and pledged to produce the long-rumoured Cajun, the baby Cayenne SUV.'
I'm not really sure this is what critics of the motoring industry had in mind when they talked up the advantages of downsizing in the recent economic crisis. But Porsche have done the sums and seen that with yet more platform sharing, this time with the Audi Q5, they can stamp out a mid size 4x4 to their own spec while expoliting their position in the VW Group, and have an undisputed winner on their hands. The fact is, they're right. The end result will, I predict right now, look unfortunate from the front and okay from everywhere else, have a gorgeous interior, handle and drive extremely well for an SUV, and be so desirable despite the cost that the new and already highly credited BMW X3 and Range Rover LRX won't know what hit them, despite not even being in direct competition. Worrying news for brands like Infiniti too, as now those who can't stretch to a Cayenne won't have to look outside Porsche for an alternative.
As long as Porsche sidestep the landmine of not making the Cajun different enough from it's Q5 sister, they'll be home and dry, and private school runs will never look the same again. Of course a big draw for potential Cajun customers will be the opportunity to buy into Porsche relatively inconspicuously, avoiding the stigma a Cayenne Turbo GTS drums up as it rumbles past.
I'm not going to totally slate the Cajun, despite not being a fan of its name, or much of the reasoning behind it, because as a car in its own right, in isolation, it'll be very good. I will however take issue with Porsche, and their ever-swelling model line-up. BMW got a lot of stick when it brought out the 1-Series for brand dilution, but the same badge was already available on the back of diesel repmobiles and softroaders; not very Ultimate Driving Machine. With Porsche's new strategy however,  I'm ever reminded of the point made by one Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear a few years back concerning the Cayman, during one of his last credible road tests before the programme descended into more juvenile artificial nonsense. Clarkson pointed out brilliantly (at 4 mins 53s) that the Cayman slotted 'rather too perfectly' into the Porsche sports car range in terms of price, power, and performance, leading him to conclude it was designed not 'to be as good as a car can be', but to just 'fill a gap in the market.'

Now Porsche are up to the same trick with the Cajun, and it doesn't stop there. Before 2015 there'll be a baby Boxster with blown 4 cylinder engines making an appearance, all in an effort, as with the new SUV, to 'attract younger buyers to the brand.'
By this point then, Stuttgart's exports will be 2 mid engines soft top sports cars, a hardtop coupé mid engined sports car, a rear engined GT/track car, a mid size SUV, large SUV, large super-luxury-coupaloon and at some point, halo mid-engined hybrid hypercar, in the form of the production 918 Spyder. Furthermore, despite the Panamera's dire styling and slight driver disatisfaction, it was Porsche's fastest selling model ever, so the revered performance exec market held by the M5, XFR, and E63 incumbents will no doubt prove too tempting to miss out on in the future. And don't forget the new '928' Panamera based coupé in the works.
Apart from the impressive 918 project, the rest of the model range is starting to look a little bloated, with too many cars competing chiefly with each other. Upcoming releases like the new 911, seen testing frequently, and the 918, have to be 'got right' to maintain faith in the Porsche marque, and the top brass will argue that profit from their more practical offerings funds this. And yet perhaps Porsche should slow down its diversification away from the sports car, not forget the the 911 is still The Sports Car, before the soul is lost in the accounts department. To quote Mr Clarkson again: You can't argue with that.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

MPG: Motoring Propaganda Golddust

In the 'real world', with company car tax bands, high fuel prices, emissions tax, and dwindling resources, the only performance figures for a car that really matter are the claimed fuel economy and emissions. The critical word in that last sentence is 'claimed.' It's a long held trusim that the miles per gallon a manufacturer inserts into the small print at the bottom of a glossy car advert is optimistic at best. The neat loophole of heading it under the 'combined fuel cycle' umbrella allows car makers to justify their totals, by arguing they reflect a mixture of standard driving practices and situations, and in turn this variety produces such impressive numbers.
However the audacity of these claims has seemingly been taken to new heights (or lows) by the findings of a very recent examination of the Fiat 500 TwinAir, in the unsurpassable Autocar Magazine roadtest, which I thoroughly recommmend. Fiat claims that the cute little Cinquecento, powered by a revolutionary (no pun intended) 875cc 2 cylinder turbocharged engine, will achieve a faintly ludicrous 68.9 combined mpg. Now fundamentally frugal diesel cars have been able to get this kind of mileage for a couple of years, such as the VW Polo Bluemotion and BMW 318d. A naturally revvier petrol motor would struggle under normal circumstances, so Fiat have taken inspiration from the original vertical twin engine out of the 1957 Cinq and brought in 21st Century knowhow to create the TwinAir. And at first look, the benefits are quite tangible.
Two cylinders, ie half the number in a normal city car, equals less weight and internal friction. Less energy is lost through heat transfer, and the miniature turbo provides mid range boost to provide a par-for-class 84bhp. CO2 emmisions are a paltry 95g/km, the lowest of any internal combustion powered car on sale, meaning the lucky owner saves further money on tax.
So how then, did this lightweight, well designed, thoroughly tested city car manage just 35.7mpg on the combined cycle? Autocar's route covered the sort of driving you'd expect any modern city to be able to cope with when called upon, mostly urban miles together with occasional motorway and B-road work, and yet the Fiat coughed out only just over half the mileage it is allegedly capable of. How can this be allowed? If Apple released the new iPad ina  year or so's time and lauded it to have a fortnight's worth of battery life, only for consumers to discover it died after half an hour, trading standards and suchlike would have a field day. The credibility of Apple's designers and marketing dept. would be (further) decimated. Yet car makers continually appear to flout the rules by advertising their cars to be a damn site easier on petrol than they actually are, though customers are so used to this swindle that it fails to generate a meaningful fuss.
The fact is that somewhere, somehow, manufacturers have calculated on powerful virtual systems, taking into account all factors and actuators, what the maximum economy of their product is. Then they will put a trained test driver into an immaculately prepared example, on an empty, billiard-table smoooth test track, in perfect weather conditions, and achieve said mileage by monitoring all the car's systems and eeking out the very limits of its thirst. They are then perfectly within their rights to advertise these grand totals, despite the fact it would be irresponsible, leave alone unrealistic, to even attempt to drive in such a manner on the public highway. Traffic, impatience, human error, local geography, and carrying passengers mean it's practically impossible to get a Prius up past 72 mpg in proper usage. The cut and thrust of city driving puts so much stress on the tiny TwinAir powerplant that for all its green credentials, the fuel bill will still leave gullible owners in the red. And red-faced.
Don't expect this global fraud to be brought down anytime soon though, because the fact is, it brings about the most important aspect of the motor industry. It sells cars. It's even creating new ones. So by all means try a VW Bluemotion, a Mercedes BlueEfficiency, a BMW EfficientDynamics, or a Skoda GreenLine. Perhaps a Ford Econetic, a Vauxhalll ecoFLEX, a Volvo DRIVe, a SEAT Ecomotive. Maybe even a Ferrari HY-KERS. Just be ready to suffer two things. One is falling hook, line, and sinker for cynical marketing propaganda. The other is driving around in a car with a bloody stupid sounding badge on the back.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

A Big Crash, Big Cash, and a Tad Slapdash

Just a short bit of housekeeping regarding motoring news from the past couple of days.

Firstly, Jaguar's recent roll, thanks to the XJ and CX75, has ground to a halt. Quite an abrupt one, in the form of hitting a solid barrier at 40mph. The critically acclaimed XF saloon caught the headlines for the wrong reasons in the most recent series of Euro NCAP safety tests for only scoring 4 stars. Since the Renault Laguna first produced a full house of stars back in 2000, it's been generally accepted that any mass produced car bigger than a supermini needs to be scoring 5* also to look credible. Yet the genesis of Jag's current renaissance was marked down due to 'limited occupant protection for adult and child.' Hang on. Where's the safest place to be in this big cat, the boot? The foremost point of safety cells and crumple zones is to protect at all cost those unfortunate enough to be inside the car during an accident. Nevertheless the XF gets a rather embarrassing and one suspects quite preventable black mark for letting these critical elements slip. Next to 5* E-Classes, 5 Series, even a humble VW Polo, the XF is a stand out failure. Yet in so many ways, it's not. It still scored 4*, a thoroughly commendable result, and one which a decade ago would have made it nigh on the safest car in the world. Ironic how since the benchmark has been breached, only the best is quite literally good enough. Jaguar have of course vowed to explore the shortcomings from this and also the unsatisfactory side impact pole test, and implement them into the car's 2012 facelift. Until then, the XF, for all its interior theatrics and apparently superlative drive, will be wading into battle with damp powder against the usual foe.

Still, if your hard earned £35k+ is burning a hole in your pocket while you wait for these issues to be rectified, but you still fancy an attractive British set of wheels, then  look no further, though this offering may require putting in a few late shifts. McLaren Automotive have announced that the base price for their hotly anticipated but rubbishly named MP4-12C supercar will be £168,500. This includes the 2011 VAT rise, though not the relatively minor registration and road fund licensing fees. Still, the veritable bargain baby Macca will still undercut its nearest and bitterest rival, the Ferrari 458 Italia, but the thick end of £3000 when they go head to head late in next year. As with the Italian Stallion, once you've specced lightweight forged alloy wheels, carbon fibre trim, curiously heavier-than-steel-equivalent carbon ceramic brakes, and other unnecessaries like upgraded infotainment, Woking's new flagship will set you back getting on for £200k. I found it a bit cheeky that McLaren had elected to undercut Ferrari by such a petty sum. Both marques have pedigree, both have invested heavily in development, and both are fighting for a marketplace where for the most part, money is no object. Pretty cheeky of the British outfit then to deliberately set out to make Maranello's finest look a bit of a rip off.

Finally, rumours are abound of a partnership between VW Group members Porsche and Bentley over a tie-up regarding their future large luxury models. Demand from the Middle East and China is causing manufacturers to re-evaluate their stance on lavish leviathans, with even Maserati announcing this week that it is planning designs on a rival Cayenne-esque superpowered SUV. (Hopefully this won't be styling wise, having seen the monstrous effects of grafting 911 features onto a mud-plugger, the result of adapting a Quattroporté grille onto a psuedo-off roader would create a road-going black hole with Channel Tunnel likenesses.) Anyway, these lucrative markets care not for the intricacies of platform sharing, since despite two cars sharing an identical base architecture, two different badges of the bonnets will probably equal twice as many sales for Volkswagen. Porsche chief Matthias Müller is apparently keen to allow Bentley access to the shortened Panamera platfom, to be utilised by Porsche in the upcoming 928 successor. 
This would allow Bentley to fast-track production of a similarly sized and powered grand touring coupé (and possible cabriolet.) Despite the economical benefit, many remain skeptical of the ever-growing VW parts bin incest which becomes increasingly evident, and controversial, with each new release. Nowhere is this dilution of brand attributes more evident than in the usage of VW's 1.4l TSI, DSG-equipped platform to underpin the new Polo GT, Audi A1, Skoda Fabia VRS and SEAT Ibiza Cupra. All are small promising hot hatches, criticized for their lack of individuality and uniqueness, the exact traits and preferences that are so vital in any performance car. 

This evidently counter-argues that platform-sharing actually inverse-proportionally increases the choice and variety of cars around today, rather than erodes it, and has created some of the best loved and most revered automobiles of recent past, present and future. Lambo Aventador anyone?

However, this perception of a slapdash attitudes to streamlining automotive creativity isn't completely watertight. Without such practices, Audi  couldn't have sourced the masterpiece Lamborghini V10 which resides in the back of the R8. The Continental GT wouldn't have been able to save the Phaeton investment from being a waste of time by becoming the most profitable car in Bentley's history. And the profitability of all these companies would have been unavailable to utilize in the purchasing of Bugatti and perfection of the Veyron project.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Korean (Car) War

Pop quiz time...
The car in that picture, just there. What is it? To a totally untrained eye, it's a big, imposing businessman's express, most probably German. To many Europeans, it's totally forgivable to see the hints of LS in the tail and bet on it being some kind of facelifted Lexus. However, this car is in fact a Hyundai. It's the Equus, the Korean outfit's shock success in North America, where it retails at a base price of $58,000.
For a car this size, and loaded with an obscene amount of kit as standard, the Equus is an undoubted bargain. However, in the luxury saloon marketplace, where one is chauffered, rather than to be so vulgar as to drive oneself, one doesn't do 'bargains.' Yet the Stateside motoring press have lavished praise of the car as being a credible alternative to other cars in the class from Bavaria or the British.
In Europe, a Hyundai with a five figure price needs to come in at under £20k or it gets laughed right out of town. Call it badge snobbery, or discerning tastes, but nevertheless the Korean and Malaysian marques, specifically Hyundai and Kia are largely still seen as cheap, unemotional transport, the stereotypical way from A to B, especially for the more elderly in society. Years of drab superminis with silly names trying to undercut a vastly more desirable Fiesta by a few hundred quid mean that the Far East, Japan aside, simply has no desirability whatsoever as a maker of good cars.

How much do you need an X3?
Defeatist attitudes never achieved anything though, and by slowly plugging away at a market they can dominate, the Koreans are now emerging as a major worldwide force in the automotive industry. Kia have savvily poached ex-Audi design chief Peter Schreyer, and the latest offerings he has penned aren't just unoffensive, they have real flair and originality. The aggressive, dynamic lines evident in the new Sportage, Soul and Optima aren't going to win the Turner Prize in the near future, but the Germans have been dropping the ball lately, with the 5 Series and E-Class, and A8 coming in for particular scrutiny thanks to their frumpy proportions and odd detailing. Next to the premium norm, Kia seems to have much more flair in its new design language, rather than just
I know you got Soul... no it's not a concept
throwing LED running lights at a headlamp until the supposedly subtle Germanic approach ends up resembling a disco ball.
Hyundai meanwhile have also turned out a brace of attractive cars in the past couple of years. The soon to be replaced Coupé still looks fresh, and the new ix35 and Santa Fe are remarkably well-proportioned SUVs for such an infant manufacturer. Unlike the Chinese offerings, the Korean motors have vastly improved build quality, Euro-equal levels of safety, and the killer cominbation of generous trim and low price to create great value for money cars. In a period as families look to downsize and diversify, these cars are very much of their time. The Korean outfits may lack the immense size of the Volkswagen group, but in what they can offer to the customer they are probably more of a People's Car.
I believe however there's just one final obstacle obstructing the expansion and full acceptance of Kia and Hyunda et al into European motoring. They've got basic no frills superminis nailed, their crossovers and saloons are intruiging in the extreme and even the rather unspectacular Cee'd has a starring role as the infamous Reasonably Priced Car on Top Gear.

The most fun you can have in a far
What they need is a proper, pucker, halo performance car.
That's not the greedy, juvenile, clichéd petrolhead inside me wailing for another Fast and Furious prop to drool over. It's simply that in Europe, every major nation has a proud history of producing cars, in the past or at present. And plenty of this is built around sports cars.
England make the world best lightweight specials, in Lotus, Ariel, and Caterham, together with fabulous luxury grand tourers from Aston Martin and Jaguar. A history of MG's, Triumphs, TVR's and something called the McLaren F1 are handy too. The French have consistently produced the world's best hot hatches since the 205GTi. Italy is home of the supercar, and the Germans produce arguably the definitve sports coupé, the Porsche 911. If Kia or Hyundai could somehow conjure up a low volume, decently set up sports car, regardless of the badge adorning its no doubt handsome body, they'd be home and dry, in the same way the NSX, Type-R, Evo's and Impreza STI's helped cement Japan's place as a respected source of cars. It's ambitious, and perhaps unfortunate, that many Europeans are so cynical in their opinion of the Korean cars that they need a rear wheel drive, high revving, low slung slap in the face to make them sit up and take note of such a burgeoning talent. Fingers crossed then, for a potentially brilliant halo car to start the surge.

A Pointless Performance Car, or Perfect?

Most petrolheads will have discovered this morning from various sources the arrival of a brand new, pedigree hot hatchback on the scene, with the unveiling of the 2011 Audi RS3. After reading about the new arrival for a short while, drinking in its appearance, quantifying its vital stats, I've changed my mind on my opinion of it at least 3 times.
Styling wise, I reckon the RS3 is a job well done. It looks aggessive, and suitably different from the cooking A3 and S3 models, with the modern Audi top-of-the-line trademarks all present, big wheels, big grille, daytime running lights, larger, angular griles picked out in contrasting trim. The alterations are 'there' enough to appeal to those in the know about cars, and inoffensive to those who aren't. There's a bit of BMW M-car there in the way the body is hunkered down onto the wheels, some classic Quattro in the body surfacing especially around the blistered wheel arches, and a general look of hot-rod esque purpose. Sure, the 'diffuser' rear bumper is a bit pretentious, and its downforce isn't going to stick you into the road on the way to pick up the kids from school, but at least it's evidence the Germans have a sense of humour.
Meanwhile, the RS3's practicality makes it very cool. Like any hot hatch, its performance credentials haven't impeded on its usability, so you get 5 dooirs, a big boot, plenty of fun ways to fold your seats and all the usual optional luxuries Audi can rip you off with. The ride will no doubt be pretty firm as with any Audi but the car's still going to be able to pick up those kids.
The thing that started to get me as a read about the RS3 was the clichéd question: 'Does the world really need a 335bhp, four wheel drive, DSG transmission hot hatch?' Like I said in my last post, the automotive industry's ego is pushing engine output figures through the roof to get one over on each other. But it's not just in supercars, in the last 12 months we've seen the 345bhp Ford Focus RS500, the 395bhp Subaru Impreza Cosworth, test hacks of Renaultsport and Vauxhall VXR's new offerings each with substantially more than 300bhp promised, and now an Audi with power on a par with a 1990's Ferrari. This could have been justified a while back, when all of these sorts of cars were seen pounding round rally stages and touring car circuits in different championships. But now, with even Mitsubishi no longer sending the Evo rallying, these are just halo cars, a finishing touch the the model range. If proof were needed, just peruse Audi's press release for the RS3. It states that the car will only be sold as a 5 door Sportback model. Don't be fooled for one moment into believing this is because it's a low volume, limited edition special, or because of complicated manufacturing processes. It's simply down to the fact that Audi put the same 2.5 litre turbo 5 cylinder motor in the (125 kg lighter!) TTRS, the more stylish, less practical, 2 door coupé. A racier 3 door RS3 would nick sales from the £50+ TTRS, so it will never exist. Not because it's a car Audi can't make, but because it's one that can't make Audi more money. And anyway, the Volkswagen group will sell you a three door, four wheel drive, 2 litre turbo hot hatch in the form of the Golf R, so the RS3 three door never stood a chance.

Would Sir prefer a Q-Car stealth bomber...

And yet, after deciding that this car is a cynical ploy by the marketing dept, to sell Audi's RS heritage down the river by topping every range with a bodykitted, souped up badgefest, I've yet again changed my mind, and decided that in fact, cars like the RS3 are actually a very savvy bit of kit.

Like it or not, environmentalism is catching up with the performance car. Aston Martin will sell you a rehashed Toyota iQ now to bring its average CO2 emissions down. BMW, makers of 'The Ultimate Driving Machine', base their annoying recent 'Joy' campaign around their EfficientDynamics policy. Ferrari are copyrighting hybrids.

..or a badge-engineered whitegood?
Obvious sports cars are going to have to bend
over backwards in the coming decades to comply with everyone's emission and consumption regulations, while in the meantime, hot hatchbacks are starting to occupy the sort of performance benchmarks which were monopolised just a few short years ago by the likes of Ferrari, Porsche, and the M division.
A far more practically packaged bodystyle, impeccable safety, inherent mass-produced reliability, plus more change in your wallet. And you'll still get from 0-60 in 5 seconds or less.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Hypercar Horsepower Hubris

One of the appealing traits of sharing a like of performance cars is that while you may disagree with others over the subjective aspects of such machines, like styling, build philosophy, or preferred setup, they can always be quantified by their statistics. Like the playground game of Top Trumps, there's no way to argue your way past the fact that someone else's car, no matter how ugly or overpriced, will show yours a clean pair of tailpipes at the traffic lights. The automotive industry is well wise to this too, since progress is far easily to pin down  if your offering has 'more' than its predecessor, and more importantly, its rivals. More power, more grip, more noise, more LEDs in its headlights.
If you want to stay on top of the game in the supercar business for more than about twenty five minutes, you have to set such an outrageous benchmark that no-one will attempt, even dare, to try and take you on for a good while. The best recent example of this is the iconic McLaren F1. When  Gordon Murray's carbon fibre and gold leaf masterpiece exploded onto the scene in the ealy '90's, it annihilated the previous fastest production car in the world, the short lived Jaguar XJ220. A naturally aspirated engine chucking out 621 bhp is a not insubstantial motor now. Slotting one into a 900 kg body with cutting aerodynamics and meticulous weight distribution was verging on downright irresponisble back then, but the resulting automobile would hit 231mph in road going trim, and 240+ without the rev limiter. With longer gearing it would have gone still faster, but it's always nice to quit while you're ahead. Setting such an outrageous level for competitors to reach meant that the handbuilt F1 remained the world's fastest street legal production car until 2004, an unprecedented 12 year period. During the '80's, the record changed every other year, with 288 GTO vs 959, vs F40. But England's Woking outfit couldn't be surpassed until the Koenigsegg CCR finally took the crown by reaching 240.7mph. That's how long it took it reset McLaren's benchmark. It's still the fastest ever natually aspirated road car, despite the attack of Carrera GT, Enzo, and Murcielago. Looking at the curent trend towards forced induction, it's not a record to be relinquished soon.
This set the ball rolling again however, proving the incumbent could be toppled. And then VW decided that they would pick up the rolling ball and knock it into the middle of next month, by creating a new benchmark. To propel a modern car with modern safety and comfort features noticeably faster than the challengers, they had to go big, so they went for 1000bhp, and got 987, which is a noble effort. They bunged it in the Veyron, it strolled up to 253mph, and the German designed, French made, Italian origined result was the fastest car in the world. And after all that investment, research and toil, their record lasted 2 years.

Back to the future: SSC's Diablo tribute act...
 The problem was that they proved it could be done. That the infamous One Thousand Horspower could be created, tamed, put in a car, and used. So SSC from the USA came along with their Ultimate Aero TwinTurbo, consising of a highly tuned Chevy V8 in a toy Lambo style body, and shot their 1187bhp missile through the desert at 256.1mph. A whole 3 mph faster than the European Allies.
And as Bugatti scuttled away to tinker with the Veyron, other 1000bhp cars came out the woodwork. The Hennessey Venom GT, a stetched
 Lotus Exige with another muscle car engine. The 9ff GT9R, a stretched Porsche 997 GT3 with 1200bhp. The Arash GT, with states of tune up to 1200 bhp available. And so it goes on. Once a company has proved such power is acheivable, it becomes more than just possible, it becomes neccessary. Because if your car has a less obscene power output than his, it's not as good. Period.
...and their as yet nameless Bugatti basher

Yet is this more fun?
Or not. This horsepower struggle will now keep rolling on until someone sticks a Krakatoan amount of poke in the back of their brainchild and fits a speedo that goes up to a number beginning in 3. It's all so tiresome since it's so utterly unusable, unappreciable, on anything other than a drag strip. So while Bugatti sits pretty back at the top of the automotive tree with the 1183 bhp Veyron Supersport, and SSC wait to strike back with their 1350bhp road rocket, I reckon the rest of the car world is starting to tire of it all. Apart from the environmental can of worms, there just has to be a better use of resources than the top speed club. Jerod Shelby of SSC predictably argues that top speed is still relevant as "it's the most difficult performance specification to meet", and that he likes at as "we used it to gain notoriety." I'm more with the Lamborghini school of thought though, brilliantly showcased in their recent Sesto Elemento concept. Light weight, medium modern power output, but focused on driver involvement, intense sensation rather than simply straight-line piloting, and rapid acceleration, with an estimated 0-60 time of 2.4 seconds. Plus, without the need for 250mph components, the price starts to drop below the half a million needed for even a second hand Veyrons and Aeros, uet alone the seven-figure stickers on fresh ones. This is the way for the performance car to go. Just look at the praise recentley lavished on basic specials like the Ariel Atom 500, GT3 RS, or Caterham R500. Acceleration is the new benchmark. Acceleration is about to take off.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Ferrari World: Genius Marketing or Sell-Out Joy Ride?

Aside from the minor tyre and performance tests still continuing, the majority of the Formula One circus will by now have rolled ou of Abu Dhabi and off to its secret labs and garages for the intensive winter break. Yet permanently etched on the skyline of the United Arab Emirates capital is an omnipresent, 213ft long reminder of the lucrative power of F1. It's also the most desirable marque in motoring: the Prancing Black stallion on Canary Yellow background that since 1947 has adorned every famous export of Maranello, Italy. Impressive as this may be, however, the question is why indeed does Ferrari need to enhance its stellar worldwide repuation and brand power with a Middle Eastern based theme park, the largest such covered attraction on the planet? Furthermore, does its existence actually detract from Enzo Ferrari's beloved brainchild?
Certainly, Ferrari cannot argue that their new temple in one of the world's richest countries is deemed neccessary by a need for profit. Even during the deepest fathoms of the economic downturn, Ferrari still managed to rack up a 14 month waiting list for their new £140,000 California model. Simultaneously they were still funding development on the current 599 GTO and 458 Italia cars, of course in conjuncion with F1. After the latter cars recieved overwhelming praise from the motoring press, it's not appparent that Fezza were cutting corners and costs, so Ferrari World is not a vital asset to resuscitate depleted assets. Even if it were, builidng a muti-£million glorified fairground would be a bit of a gamble.
So if Ferrari's Arabian home from home isn't designed to get them back in the black, then maybe it's about providing the most intense high speed thrills possible ouside of a 430 Scuderia on full song out of Turn One at Fiorano. On first inspection, this appears to have hit the proverbial nail on the head. The flagship 5 year-in-the-making rollercoaster, 'Formula Rossa', proudly holds the title of World's Fastest Rollercoaster, reaching a top speed of 149mph, which will have pleased the marketing department. Check out the video link below for a view of it putting a smile of Fernando Alonso's face that wouldn't last long...

Unfortunately though the adrenaline junkie thread starts to unravel from hereon out. The other main rides consist of 'Fiorano GT Challenge', in which two rollercoasters built to look vaguely like the now obselete F430 Spider arer launched simultaneously on nearby but separate tracks, and proceed to follow their tame course with the main novelty being derived from the fact that the cars are 'racing.' The fact that it is an elecronically controlled rollercoaster, not a supercar dogfight, makes the outcome very much a one horse race, predictably. Finally, those wih a head for not much heights can strap themsleves into 'G Force', a vertical spaceshot tower whcih fires riders up at 12 m/s in order to experience the strains of a Formula One driver, apparently. Arriving at the top of the 203 ft tower, riders can enjoy a brief glimpse out of the top of the roof structure to that enormous Ferrari badge and picturesque sand dunes, while hopefully ignoring the fact that they are at the climax of a ride which is both slower and less than half the height of the world's tallest example of a spaceshot tower ride. Under the vast canopy below, the designers, who could well have been responsible for the equally disappointing Millenium Dome in London, were obviously short of ideas to fill the 20 sq km space they had created. Out of the suggestion box, they ended up with delights of V12, a diluted log flume which drifts nauseatingly through the heart (read: innards) of a V12 engine, and a carousel with mini-Ferrari prototypes on board.

Rides that make you sick..
Clearly the wheels fell off the idea to create a Mecca for thrill-seekers, but if a visitor is more enclined towards Italian culture, that's no trouble. Quite apart from the fact that said punter has missed Italy and ended up in the UAE desert, the minature aerial voyage of Italy, 'Viaggio in Italia', and the numerous Italina bistros and eateries will surely satisfy any tourists' lust for some authentic Latin flava. a whole new way
Well, perhaps. Forgive my scepticsm, because Ferrari World is unquestionably a terrific feat of engineering, and efficient construction. But the endless Italian restaurants and coffee shops are a clue to the real point of the place. It is quite possibly the most cynical example of product placement, advertising profiteering, ever. One look at the Ferrari website will show any browser that Ferrari is no stranger to putting its logo on any piece of cheap, carbon fibre adorned crap and selling it at extortionate prices. But now they've only gone and done it to a gazebo. To exit Ferrari World, visitors have to walk through another record breaker, the biggest Ferrari store in the world, where Giovanni and Ahmed will be happy to sell you a full size F1 car replica, a Scuderia embossed scatter cushion, and anything inbetween. The erosion of the Ferrari name has been relentless to the point of demeaning, since allowing almost anyone a slice of the 'Ferrari lifestyle', the legend, removes its exclusivity and  renders its desirability a joke. Ferrari will argue that profits from their new scarlet elephant will be invested in better quality control and technical advancement of their road cars, but if they have no reverence to trade on, so what? Porsche always justifies the Cayenne to enthusiasts by citing the fact it is the most profitable vehicle in the hisory of the marque, and has funded some of its best driving machines, 997 GT3 RS, Boxster Spyder, 918 et al, but Stuttgart's tarted up Touareg is still one of the most unpopular vehicles on the road. Enzo is spinning in his grave faster than the $ in shareholders' eyes.
When he ascended to the role of Ferrari President, akin to the selection of the new Pope in Italy, Luca de Montezemolo was quoted as saying 'We don't sell cars, we sell a dream." Pity then that greed has driven the Godfather of sports car motoring to sell you aftershave and bath towel shaped slices of that same dream, only now you can collect yours in person from a desert of good taste.

At least Massa seemed to enjoy himself...

Monday, 15 November 2010

Red Bull Charge Finishes Spanish Matador

It's 16 weeks until the 2011 Formula One season kicks off, but to fill that chasm of time there's plenty of analysis to be done of what must go down as one of the sport's greatest ever sagas, won yesterday by 23 year-old German Sebastian Vettel. Finally able to convert his qualifying prowess into undisputed race victory, his masterclass in Abu Dhabi was undoubtedly worthy of a champion, and a credit to the meteoric rise to success of Red Bull F1. Yet again, investment in young driver talent (cite Hamilton, Rosberg etc) has paid dividends, not just in titles but the double prize money netted by the team for attaining the constructors' and drivers' crowns.
It was a fairlytale end to an inconsistent season for Vettel, and as with every good story, there was of course a dastardly villain, who lived up to his billing yesterday and further demonised himself in the eyes of the sporting media and audience. Why Fernando Alonso deems himself worthy of having the right to pull alongside a rival yet compatriot driver after the race, and gesture angrily at him for not letting his supposedly superior machine (and its driver) past is anyone's guess, but it remains extremely poor form for him to lose so arrogantly and blame Renault's Vitaly Petrov. It's the old Cristiano Ronaldo scenario; talented, wealthy, adored sportsman with much potential ruins his reputation unneccessarily with childish behaviour and sore losing. It did add to the spectacle nevertheless, and made the Red Bull's victory just that little sweeter. With the ghastly blot of 'Ferrari World' opening last week just a stone's throw from the Abu Dhabi circuit, snatching Ferrari's flagship title from Alonso's dominant grasp has created an embarrassment that no amount of Prancing Horse branded aftershave and baseball caps can smooth over for some time.
Even better though, is the stage set for 2011. Luca de Montezemolo, success hungry President of Ferrari, will demand  revenge, and dominance. Alonso has a thirst to go one better. Massa needs to emerge from no man's land and justify the most revered driving seat in the world. Meanwhile the Red Bulls will invest and want to capitalise on such a whitewash, while the all-Brit team of previous champions at Mclaren will be ready to add to their trophy haul and cement their status. Throw into the mix an even longer season, a possibly resurgent Michael Schumacher and Niko Rosberg at Mercedes, together with the usual threateners of Kubica, Barrichello, and the venerable age/desire time bomb that ticks within Mark Webber, plus the fact that all teams will be supplied with thus untested Pirelli tyres, and Formula One next year looks set to be another landmark vintage.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Formula One-on-One

So, my first post. And there's little better to kick off with than today's Formula 1 showdown finale in Abu Dhabi, to see crown the 2010 World Drivers Champion. Getting straight to the point, I wonder if there is actually a neutral perspective on the prospective victors?
Fernando Alonso, this year's undoubted dark horse, recovered from a poor early period in the season despite the initial victory, to lead the championship into this final round. But is his margin of 8 points tainted by that fateful team-ordered overtake of Felipe Massa at Hockenheim? While any F1 motormouth can argue all day long about his (un)involvement in the 'Crashgate' scandal that rocked Renault F1 in 2008, this year's decisive moment was far more blatant, and therefore inflammatory. Yet does it matter, in such a high paced, high priced, split second sporting world? Does 'doing a Suarez', bending the rules to breaking point in order to gain your advantage, justify the means? However you call the Machievellian traits of the Spaniard's behaviour, the fact is he remains a force to be reckoned with in today's race.
Sebastian Vettel? A young Schumacher, perhaps. A talented one lap specialist, undoubtedly. And a future world champion, probably? But in 2010? It's fair to remain sceptical that despite Red Bull's dominance (and arguable favoring of the German) he remains a little impatient, inexpericed, and impertinent. His lack of concentration throughout the season has led to pit lane speeding, poor behind safety car control, and in the worst of cases, ending not only his race but that of Jenson Button at Spa, skewering the defending champ in the greasy braking zones. So is it to be Vettel? Maybe.
Most people in and out of F1 have an opinion on Lewis Hamilton, mostly it consisting of 'if I drive really fast, will I bag a Pussycat Doll?' His challenge today is that of an outsider who has struggled this season, with a car not quite up to scratch, and his own ambition to prove his slim title win in 2008 was no beginner's luck. His second place grid position stands him in good stead for him to produce a performance like Button's curtain call at Brawn in Interlagos, and Hamilton could well have #1 back on his McMerc's nose next year if he profits from Vettel's inconsitency between pole position and chequered flag.
Now, as a Brit, I'm about to blashpheme. In the most playground of terms, I want Webber to win. Mark Webber, Mr 'Not Bad For A Number Two Driver', the bridesmaid of Formula One, deserves it most, simply. He's driven brilliantly, all season. He does not indulge in the mind games and political red tape that engulfs F1 every fortnight. Plus, he's knocking on a bit and won't have another season in all likelihood to lay claim to the crown.
As a final aside, it'll be cracking to see how Abu Dhabi plays into the mix, and if the vast investment and lucrative end of season timing lives up to the billing as a classic, rather than a boring parade. It's time for Dhabi to deliver, and take over title-deciding classics from Interlagos with gusto.
So that's my first Tyre Roar blog post, and my hat in the ring regarding F1, which won't feature that regularly here. And the best bit is that whether my horse (or Bull) comes home first or not, I'll still have plenty of ammo to strike up a second.

Comments, as always, welcome.
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