Monday, 27 June 2011

Is There Any Need For Swede?

Another day, yet another swing in the fortunes (or lack thereof) of troubled Swedish car maker Saab. Today it's announced it can once again afford to pay its staff, following an order for 582 new cars from a Chinese buyer (presumably a fleet sale then.) The advance payment of 13 million euro has bought breathing space for Saab, allowing it to pay its staff, momentarily, one assumes, and keep its head above water for a few more weeks.

This is hardly encouraging news however. Instead of a solid foundation for which to recover upon, this looks more look like yet another death throe in the slow, painful demise of the quirky company. To exist, and thrive in the car industry, your cars need to be flowing out of showrooms with healthy demand and favourable reviews. Save for the ice-cool styling of the new 9-5, Saab has enjoyed neither of late, and with the solitary other model being the elderly, ever-facelifted 9-3, there's no obvious recovery route. Yet more fantasy motor show concepts are a disgraceful waste of resources as well.

The 9-4X crossover is irrelevant in most of Europe for its lack of diesel option, and even if the mechanical package was competitve, who is going to pay a premium over standard GM underpinnings for the sake of an unconventional badge? Especially one whose infrastructure and future is shakier than a Premier League footballer's wedding vows. And so the vicious economc circle continues.

The Swedish do make good cars, but they are very aware of the place within the market that they occupy. Volvo would love to challenge BMW for the keen drivers executive market, but at heart they're honest load luggers for unassuming individuals for whom a car is a useful comfortable tool. Then you have Koenigsegg, at the opposite end of the spectrum ,who exploded onto the scene with the 240mph CC and have been building ever more improbably powerful versions of it since, up to the most recent 1115bhp Agera R. If you want a rareified hypercar with a targa roof and ski-box, the Swedes are yet again your go-to people.
But one can't help feeling the end is nigh for Saab. Here's hoping there's already a contingency plan in place for its loyal, beleagured staff, and their fragile job security. If it comes to pass, it'll be a sad end for a stoically left field and innovative manufacturer, and refreshing alternative to the German norm. But for all its jet-fighter expertise, Saab has indeed stalled, and may well plunge to oblivion before the year is out.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

For Think, It's All Over

So Think Global, manufacturer of quirky plastic electric city cars has filed for bankruptcy and ceased all international operations. Yet another car maker bites the dust, in the face of a hostile economic climate and lack of continuing investment. Not a surprise, you might think, except that Think were arguably at the cusp of the car industry's future, making small, lightweight vehicles with zero emission electric power. How, despite the fashionable marketability of eco-consciousness, could they have failed?

There's two really rather simple causes for this, in my view. Firstly, the cars themselves were too expensive, and too slow at being brought to market. If you erode your advantage of being at the peak of relevance by taking too long to offer your product to prospective customers, whatever industry you're in, interest in your product, and brand, will dry up for good. Think have been in business since 1999, yet have managed only an approximate 2500 worldwide sales in that time. Meanwhile, the hideously familiar to Londoners 'G-Wiz' has sold over 3500 units since 2006, now with a three model range and government backing.

Think were at last due to offer the Think City micro EV in the UK this autumn, but the business case was still ropey even if this had come to pass. Burgeoning technology is always pricey, but a £23,000 price tag for a minimalist city runabout with a 100 mile range is too high, even with lower running costs and congestion charge exemption. Consider that Renault's Twizy EV will retail at £8500 after a government incentive grant and you see the problem. If you're heart-set on spending your pocket-burning £25k on an electric car, the Nissan Leaf offers greater range, far more interior practicality and comfort, and the benefits of a huge manufacturer infrastructure to give that all-important peace of mind for your environmental investment.

So Think's boardroom errors have consigned it to a quick, anonymous death, on the scrapheap of recession victims. The interesting point here is that meanwhile, Tesla and Fisker have expanded, while Peugeot, Mitsubishi, and the aforementioned Renault and Nissan have newly introduced EV models to their showrooms. Motor shows are packed with every marque's take on electric concepts and battery versions of their cooking hatchbacks. So how did a relative stalwart of the EV scene sink without trace just as its moment had come?

Aside from the financial mistakes, I think there's a more sinister undertone in the world of the electric car, stemming from the inconvenient truth that they simply are not the answer. Governments may well hold them aloft as the second coming, festooning roadsides with charging points and pumping a deluge of money into lowering prices to shift them off forecourts and onto driveways. But aside from the issues of touch-and-go range expectancies and long term reliability, the core disadvantage is that they're not an ecologically sound solution.

The electricity that flows within them is produced in exactly the same way as that which runs the computer or mobile phone you're reading this on now. Power stations, fuelled by fossil fuels, or nuclear reactors, neither of which have been getting stellar press of late. If you have solar panels on your roof or live downstream of a hydroelectric dam, you're exempt from this, you are the exceptions. But at the moment, sustainable electric power from wind farms and solar rays is still vastly outplayed by that which is produced from simply burning things that'll burn.

Electric vehicles of course have their benefits. Maximum torque from 0 rpm gives rapid acceleration. They're very quiet, very undemanding to drive, and a lack of moving parts keeps maintenance costs down. The prices will only fall as well once new innovations filter through. But the fact is that the battery powered EV is a paradox on wheels, as it doesn't remove or negate an emissions problem, it simply relocates it to a much bigger pipe...

I have a foreboding feeling that all the investment and infrastructure that's being thrown at EVs currently will be obsolete within 20 years, as soon as the conundrum of hydrogen storage and transportation is overcome.

A hydrogen fuel cell still employs electric motors from propulsion, affording the same benefits as mentioned above. But being powered by the cleanest, most abundant substance in the known world not only makes eco-sense, but it keeps the car relevant as an everyday, every-distance proposition.

Think of the current situation like this. Internal combustion-powered cars are like the tape-cassette. Around for decades and honed to a fine art, it was largely forgiven its tendency to tangle irreparably and degrade over time, for its convenience and superior sound quality.

Then along came the Compact Disc, and the world went CD crazy, with CD players in your car, stereo, pocket, and home computer. The CD is the electric car, presenting a fleeting novelty which creates almost as many problems as it solves, with its scratched surfaces and 'never touch the laser' rhetoric.

 But all the while, the notion of storing a music file, or more in their thousands, on a minuscule microscopic chip, was being explored. Erasing the need for moving parts, complicated readers and scanners, while increasing the efficiency and quality of the stored material itself. It was, and is, a revelatory achievement.
And lo, the mp3 was born, the world fell in love with it, billionaires were created, and the music industry has never been the same since. If only the car industry would log on to the same mindset and concentrate of the viability of hydrogen fuel cells, because, truthfully, they're the next iPod.

I love it when an analogy comes together.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

What Drives You?

Simple question; complicated answer: does it matter which wheels your car is driven by? If your job involves driving over very tough terrain for farming or conservationist purposes, then straight-away you're entitled to all wheel drive. But for day to day driving, is the orientation of your drivetrain important? It's a long running contentious issue, and one that cars have been marketed on countless times. But what's the point?
Over and under doing it
The main argument here contests that front-wheel-drive is 'wrong wheel drive' When the front wheels of a car are responsible for transmitting power to the road, steering, and the majority of braking friction, many driving enthusiasts will argue that these jobs are corrupted by their very interaction, and front-wheel-drive is therefore the lesser, inferior option. Furthermore, front wheel drive was invented, and popularised, by compact, cheap, practical cars for its space and money-saving attributes. By being perceived as cost-cutting measure, not one of engineering excellence, the reputation of FWD is tarnished irretrievably for many.

A point I read on a motoring forum discussing this very subject, which I liked picking apart, was the fact that given a blank sheet of paper, and a healthy budget, no designer would conceive a FWD car over the RWD alternative, which by its very conception, has better weight distribution and less front-end complication.

So RWD must be the superior option? All serious, no compromise racing cars (Formula One, GT, Indy Car, NASCAR) are RWD for that perfect balance that serious drivers crave.

The road-going manufacturer which has clung to this more steadfastly than any other has of course been BMW.

Despite the packaging constraints it presents, BMW has always been very proud of the fact its 'Ultimate Driving Machines' are rear wheel drive, even down to the entry-level 1-Series. Although the 1-Series was heavily criticised for its lack of rear seat and boot space against its exclusively FWD rivals, most reviewers conceded that the trade-off in terms of driving satisfaction was palpable. BMW heavily played up to the novelty of RWD in its advertising campaign for the niche-busting One.

But now we see that BMW's Mk3 One will adopt a similar front-wheel drive platform to the BMW MINI, while the small, premium electric 'i' car range will be FWD only. Is this BMW flushing its core brand DNA down the drain? What will the Beemer customer faithful say to this?

Yes. Those are snowchains on the front. Of a RWD car.
Well, not a lot, as it turns out. BMW's best selling models in its biggest market, the USA, are its SUVs, complete with 'xDrive' four wheel drive. And a survey in the UK found that 80 per cent of 1 Series owners were unaware their car was RWD. Likely having traded up from (very talented) front wheel drivers like the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf, this overwhelming majority of owners were putting up with the cramped rear quarters and inconvenient transmission tunnel for no good reason, since they were oblivious to the car's main selling point.

At this point, the sceptical may argue it was the small blue, white and black logo on the bonnet they bought the car for, but this isn't that kind of blog...

So, in everyday driving, not that idyllic deserted B road blast, RWD is largely irrelevant if you're not an enthusiast, and just want standard family transport.

Upping the ante a bit, let's hypothesise an individual who is indeed a keen driver, and a wealthy one at that, decides they want to indulge in the most famous and glamorous performance marque of all. Surely, Ferrari would be the last vestige the rear-wheel-driven motor car.
No. The new FF blew that to smithereens upon reveal; the 'Ferrari Four' featuring four seats, and four-wheel drive. Now this is performance orientated AWD for sure, and a very clever (and profitable) move by Modena. Customers wanted the practical model in the line-up to be capable of coping with snowy alpine passes and soaking wet roads in a way that no other Ferrari could.

In response, the FF features an ingenious system, utilising the weight distribution-optimised layout of Ferrari's front engined philiosphy: By mounting the V12 behind the front axle for better balance, a miniaturised gearbox with two ratios and consistently slipping clutches is able to rob power front the front of the engine to the front wheels when the ECU detects oversteer or the front washing wide.

The advantages of this are than the front wheels can be independently controlled to maximise traction, with a much lighter than usual all-wheel-drive set-up that negates the need for clumsy multiple propshafts. Reviews seem to concur, with the FF slingshotting out of second gear hairpins with devastating effect. Autocar noted it like this:

"Through fast corners the FF retains the sense of being rear driven. But in slow-to-medium speed bends – just at the point where the FF is about to transition into oversteer – the front drive intervenes 
and there is a sense that the FF is being pulled as well as pushed."

Despite Ferrari's efforts, there is a sense in that extract that this efficient performance comes at the detriment of true driver satisfaction, which seems to be a common theme currently with hugely competent but arguably cold machines like the Nissan GT-R and McLaren MP4-12C. The FF cannot be coaxed, or provoked, into huge, tyre-smoking drifts, the natural preserve of any true 'drivers' car', in principle. This is poor form in the twisted world of the stylish, sensationalised car magazine, and maybe a disappointment to those of us hanging of their every word.

Will this stop the car selling? No. Will it make it more usable, and ingratiate Ferrari to new markets by listening to customer feedback? Yes. But will the FF be a future classic, and a graceful ager in lieu of the fact it sidesteps some of the intimidation and ferocity one would naturally associate with a Ferrari? Perhaps.

The vegetarian Italian stallion?
So rear-wheel-drive seems to be slightly in decline, and front-wheel-drive knows no bounds. But with acclaimed front drivers like the Focus RS, Golf GTi, and anything by RenaultSport, is this a bad thing? Not to many, but with the continual onset of the environmental lobby, FWD will soon give way to a lot more four wheel drive contenders. 

Why? Simply that the cheapest way of implementing electric hybrid assistance to performance cars, such as hot hatches, will be a downsized forced-induction engine driving the front wheels, while a F1-esque KERS battery pack provides variable boost to the rears for overtaking purposes, or anti-spin procedure, via the stability control. 

The next Focus RS looks likely to employ this configuration., especially if it gains widespread usage in rallying. Ferrari's 599 HY-KERS concept showcased the idea the opposite way around, with the front wheels given electrical power. The technology is rumoured to be seen on the Enzo and 599 replacements seen in 2012

Ironic then, that four-wheel-drive is infiltrating the performance car market, while the need for SUVs to be efficient is having the converse effect. Stallwart off-roader brand Land Rover is now producing FWD Freelanders and Evoques, in the interest of lower weight and drivetrain losses that decrease consumption to family hatchback levels. Sacrilege to many definitely, but on the school run where these cars spend so much of their time, the reduction of stigma, and savings, are very welcome. And Land Rover are keen to prove the front-drivers are just as competent off road, to appease the brand faithful.

Fording every stream - with FWD only.
Does it matter what drives you? Largely, it must be said, no. In most situations during normal driving, the wheels being powered by your car's engine are of little relevance. 

However, if you're a die-hard driving enthusiast, on or off-piste and relish the scrabbly agility of front-wheel-drive, the intrinsic sporty balance of rear-wheel-drive, or the supreme unstoppability of all-wheel-drive on all surfaces, the foreboding message is to enjoy it while it lasts, because it's out of our hands. 

Alternatively, try a different type of car. Chances are it'll be driving you in a different way than you might expect.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Canadian Heavens Open For A Divine Grand Prix

 What a deluge of entertainment. Where to start after that one? The Canadian Grand Prix of 2011 is a classic not 48 hours after its climax, having had quite literally everything a motor race could feature. Crashes, retirements, team civil war, unpredictable weather, stewards giving penalties, incredible overtaking and defending, breathless drama and a wonderfully Hollywood ending.

Having consumed the maximum amount of F1 coverage possible on Sunday, it was for me without a doubt the most entertaining race I've ever seen. Other races have had elements, large chunks even, of the same drama. Brazil 2008, Brazil 2009, Hungary 2006, and so on. But for a race to be so utterly absorbing to withstand a 90 minute red flag period after one-third distance, Canada 2011 truly was something special.

Sitting down to watch the build up on the excellent BBC1 coverage, there were signs we were in for a blinder. The weather was very wet, and the track notoriously unforgiving, as seen in qualifying; only Kamui Kobayashi's drift heroics at the Wall of Champions showed a clear taming of the Cirque Giles Villeneuve. Appetites whetted, race fans may well have been disappointed to begin with. A safety car start was only livened up by maverick Lewis Hamilton's altercation with Mark Webber, causing an impromptu pirouette for the Red Bull and yet another steward's inquiry against the 2008 World Champion.

Yet this single event started a chain reaction: Hamilton was left frustrated behind a resurgent Michael Schumacher,expertly piloting his underachieving Mercedes through the worsening rain. Having finally got past the old master, Hamilton's sights were squarely on his McLaren teammate, but the opportune moment for a pass lead to the nightmare scenario of a teammate collision, as a spray-blinded Button forced Hamilton into the pit wall (and boards) causing damage deemed terminal by his team, but not by the driver.

Hamilton was ordered to retire by McLaren who predicted suspension damage, when in fact the car only had severe rim damage to its left rear wheel and could have likely continued, albeit in stone dead last, if allowed to limp back to the pits. With Hamilton out, his critics were unleashed once more to riotously attack his tactics and demeanour, with Niki Lauder telling German television the young Brit is 'completely mad' and likely to cause F1's next fatal incident.

I do not subscribe to this. Lewis Hamilton had been involved in four contacts in the last 2 races, all of which have been investigated by stewards inquiries. All four were caused by him lunging his car down the inside of a competitor, leading to his McMerc interfacing not at all well with other cars and ending his, and other driver's afternoons. How can he be defended? Simply with a quote, from another maverick driver who donned a yellow helmet to showcase other-wordly driving talent.

When questioned about his notorious move on Prost in 1990 at Suzuka which won him the world title by default, Senna famously replied to Jackie Stewart:

"By being a racing driver means you are racing with other people. And if you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver because we are competing, competing to win."
I truly believe this is exactly Lewis Hamilton's philosophy. Whether a move seems viable is subjective, to Lewis, to his peers, and to armchair pundits watching endless replays in slow motions from several angles with expert commentary. Whether or not a gap is closing, or if Lewis has to 'put a lot of faith in his opposer' is larely irrelevant, because Lewis has already made his mind up - he's seen a gap, he wants the success, and he's gone for it. All the naysayers preaching he's a motorised death trap out for blood with no regard for safety is total, utter bollocks. He simply possesses a killer sporting instinct, lacked by so many (British) sportsmen. Senna and Schumacher, had it too, and attracted much criticism for dirty tactics during their careers. Yet they will be forever remembered as two of the all time greats of motorsport. Lewis Hamilton is waiting in the wings to join that elite list.

Of course, the man to beat in order to achieve that is the seemingly unassailable Sebastian Vettel. Ironically, it was Hamilton's cool-headed teammate who would eventually mount the charge to tackle the reigning champion, but not before a monumental rain-stops-play-delay.

As Vettel pleaded over the radio that the flooded track was 'undriveable', we were all greeted with the unwelcome spectacle of a red flag, for the second time in as many races, and although this time there was plenty of racing left to do, the weather seemed to be doing its level best to put paid to any hopes of a continuation. 

As drivers disembarked their tarpaulined machines and disappeared from the grid, a similar exodus from the circuit's grandstands, and likely the televisual audiences, followed suit.

More fool them. You can't really blame anyone turning off what was ostensibly a wet traffic jam to go and do something else with their Sunday afternoon,  but aside from the sterling job done by BBC's Martin Brundle, David Coulthard and Ted Kravtiz to keep us all entertained, there was plenty waiting in store for the patient. Anyone who missed it must be on a level footing with the Liverpool fans who left the 2005 Champions League Final at half time due to their self-assurance it was all over.

At the eventual restart, the likely fireworks were to be from second placed Kobayashi, gallantly flying the Sauberflag in tribute to the injured Sergio Perez in supreme style. In fact, it was to be a battle of tactics on tures and supreme chasing from Jenson Button that would grab the last gasp belated headlines, long after the frustrated newspapers had gone to press in the weather delay.

Ten laps from the finish, a result seemed set in stone, and a remarkable one at that. Aside from Vettel typically leading from the front, Michael Schumacher looked on for his first podium finish since his comeback, while Webber held off six-time pitter Button (including one drive through penalty). It was a slightly hilarious incident which predictably involved Kobayashi which shook things up. 

On lap 68, Nick Heidfeld rammed a hesitant Kobayashi as he dawdled in turn two. The damaged Renault's front wing was then pulled clean off the bottom of the car as it accelerated off the turn, ripped asunder by the downforce it was created to generate. Jettisoned from the nose, the intricate, state of the art aerodynamic carbon fibre became little more than a ramp, launching the unfortunate Heidfeld down an escape road as the wing shot under the car. 
The resultant safety car bunched the field right back up again, leading to a nail-biting finish for all expect the bruised and battered track marshal who took two tumbles in his blind panic to clear debris from the track.
The final episode of ten laps is one of the most watchable climaxes to a sporting event you will witness this year. As Vettel cruised at the front, Webber tried to make a move on the desperate Scumacher. His overcooked sweep past meant he had to relinquish the position at the first attempt, and his second try led to Button pouncing with superb directional change reactions as Webber struggled to slow the Red Bull down. Then, as Webber set about gaining his eventual third place, Button took off at Vettel, eating 1.5 seconds a lap out of his lead. The pressure on the German finally told on the very last lap.

Vettel, checking his mirrors, wary of Button, turned in fractionally too late on the run down to the hairpin. As the Red Bull undeersteered wide, then oversteered as he furiously reapplied the power, the silver streak of McLaren slid by to claim victory from what had been 21st place only 20 laps earlier. 

To say Vettel gifted Button the win would be harsh; the McLaren was close enough to have made attempts to pass the struggling Vettel both before and during the DRS zones later in the lap. 

Also, while Vettel lead from the front the entire race, Button had 5 pit stops, a drive through, a team collision, and still managed to help punt off Fernando Alonso in the latter stages, when the Spaniard pulled a Hamilton esque move to slice by in a narrow turn. Jenson Button was well worth the win, and his new second place standing in the driver's championship.

Formula One had a renaissance on Sunday, with an eclectic mix of old and new. Experienced drivers like Webber, Button, and Schumacher showed their immense talent. Good old fashioned wet weather created turmoil. 

Yet new tyres and aero allowances made overtaking on the ageing Cirque Giles Villeneuve not just possible, but an enticing inevitability. This bodes well for the serially underwhelming Valenica circuit in two weeks time. 

I sincerely hope Lewis Hamilton manages to stay the course and answer his critics in a  fortnight, and continue a wonderfully entertaining period of Formula One.

Special mention, and my personal 'Driver of the Day' goes to Bernd Maylander, for faultlessly helming the Mercedes SLS AMG safety car four times throughout the race, in appalling conditions. The use of another red SLS and a CLS AMG to clear standing water was also a brilliantly brawny way to dry a track out, and not a bad advert for those mega-Mercs either.

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