Friday, 30 November 2012

When The Saints Go Merging In

2012 saw some extraordinary changes in motorsports. Some series thought it was time to put the racing slicks up on the shelf, while others thought it was a good idea to occupy the neighbour's backyard with eventually moving in under a common roof. Whether it's good or bad, it is happening now with some very intriguing results. Let's see what the year of the London Olympics had up its sleeves for the motor racing fan not associated with.

Whoever thought the credit crunch was all bad was either an estate agent, a CEO of a major company, some millions of average citizens, or an F1 fan. It all started with the IRL/ChampCar merge back in 2008. While the unification had nothing to do with the credit crunch, as it happened almost a year before that, it set the template for the year of thin calves to come, and outlined some of the DOs and DON'Ts to be considered, which were thrown out of the window in this example. Rewinding the clock, IndyCar split to CART and the Indy Racing League back in the mid-'90s with CART having all the teams, all the media coverage, all the know-how and sponsorship, leaving the IRL with some souped-up go-karts, a calendar with about four dates among which, though, one was the Indianapolis 500. I am sure all of you played those car card games where you have a single car that is unbeatable by almost any parameter (older packs: usually a Ferrari of some sort, newer ones: a Veyron) and you can turn around the game and win from only having three cards left with this Joker in hand. Well, the Indy 500 is something very similar. CART (later ChampCar) was very impressive, fast and exciting, but it lacked the heart the clumsy IRL had. This, combined with the lack of interest caused by the split with fans wandering off to NASCAR, ChampCar had to bow out as neither the teams, the manufacturers or the sponsors slowly realised it was a series of lost values and drifted to the one that still had some. Thus, ChampCar went out of business, and all of the assets were acquired by IRL with the promise to appeal to the fans of both series.

Unfortunately they got it all wrong. The first time at least.

They took the worst of two worlds and boiled it down in a tub to make a mash no one was particularly in favour of. The one-make cars that were designed to go fast around ovals while being raced mostly on street circuits was not something that went through without major question marks, but - cutting to the chase - the now unified IndyCar heard those criticisms and added some more ovals eventually, encouraged manufacturers to take part, new chassis developed with parts to be self-developed later on. It all seems to be recalling the glory days of Indy racing. But it is too late, the damage was done, after almost 20 years. NASCAR is king in the US.

So out of all this, what the ALMS and GrandAm have to learn? Before I would get into that, let's sum up another similar, although potentially lot more successful story.

The Intercontinental Rally Challenge was conceived by EuroSport as a made-for-TV alternative to the WRC. It all seemed to be working, however, there were a few problems. Apart from the fact that it wasn't really intercontinental. Nor it came with a too prestigious title at the end of the year. Still, the exposure it granted was enough to attract teams and make a spectacle. However, as an old, forgotten brother in the closet, there hang the FIA European Rally Championship, challenged for the same spot. So the question was rather obvious: why shouldn't the privileges of media pass on to the series that had the history, making a unified European challenge. And this is exactly what happened. Or at least what should be happening from 2013.

Cutting back to American sportscar racing - there is a bad example and a rater positive example to follow here: how to incorporate the best of both worlds without all the setbacks.

Givens are: one series that baldly embraces its European ancestry, and another one - sanctioned by the country's largest body, owning the biggest motoring spectacle, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series - creating something of their own and recalling some of the atmosphere of the Carrera Panamericana ,where European sportscars were put alongside American stock cars for an epic challenge through Northern Mexico, all these manifested in the Daytona Prototype cars running at the Daytona road course.
This time the situation is a lot more complicated: how to keep those values at a balance? What to  throw out and what to keep?

Especially that NASCAR is going to be the sanctioning body, it's easy to assume with a told-you-so attitude that it would go down as the longer, slower and uncut version of NASCAR, however this seems not to be the case. They are even crowd sourcing a name for the new series.

Push comes to shove, some things have to be eliminated. Tracks, teams, even categories. The single biggest question is that whether DPs (top GrandAm category) or LMP2s (same for ALMS) should go. It has already been decided that the GT class would come from ALMS, which would strongly suggest that DPs  take the top step, ditching P2s. Or maybe not. Just think about it: the link missing between full-blown prototypes (as P1s) and GTs are the cars with production-DNA. Which are the P2s and DPs (with production-derived engine blocks). In that order. Why not have P2s AND DPs, with DPs renamed "P3"s, or P2s as "SP"s as in "Sebring Prototype". Of course FIA and ACO would have a say or two about this, but it would be the logical step to do as their power output, technology and rice would suggest. Or taking the matter even one step further, DPs have a slight stock car DNA with their attempted mimicry of actual production cars, even they are very subtle touches as the headlight-decals or some vague attempt to resemble the basic silhouette of the "donor" car.

There is something primarily engaging with racing cars that - at least in part - look like production models. That is partly why NASCAR is successful ("everyday" cars running around 200mph, "I have one of those"), that is why the V8 Supercars, DTM or the SuperGT evokes some sort of instinctively tribal phenomenon.
Funnily enough, DTM and SuperGT announced the unification of their specifications, which creates an almost WWII-grandeur alliance in motorsports, the "Axis of Silhouette". Did I mention that Daytona Prototypes are welcome in the GT300 category in SuperGT? Did someone just say there's an intercontinental thread of stock cars, sport prototypes and silhouette touring cars, making perhaps one, worldwide-spread, unified series somewhere down the line? If this is not destined for epic greatness or miserable failure, I don't know what could touch this anyway. Talking about credit crunch and necessity: creativity cannot be bought.

There are marriages in times of need where romance is left outside the building with surviving being the keyword. These never go down without bitterness (as no marriage does), but that doesn't mean there can't be really extraordinary children out of them.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Motorsports vs. The #Olympics

There has been an ongoing debate since the establishment of the modern Olympics whether motor racing should be included (as the two institutions started at the same time). Pro-arguers claim that race drivers are true athletes, nay-sayers will tell you that there is a reduced human element in motor racing and the overall performance of the combination of man and machine can be 50-50% the best, with the machine balancing constantly on the heavier side. Both of them are seemingly right, but let's look at the issue in detail.

Let's use simple logic here. Parallels are being thrown around from sleighing through sailing to equestrian sports that use some sort of tool (or animal) to compete. At the end of the day it always comes down to the difference between the sports(wo)men, and their ability to be superior over their opponents, which includes the sense for choosing the right tool to be successful. Of course, the "right tool" is not necessarily the "better tool", but more like the "suitable one" (let's suppose everyone uses pro-tools, not going against sticks broken off a hedge). Thus one kind of bow for example is not better over another one, it may just be more suitable for the person using it. On the other hand, there are more complicated tools, such as a bobsleigh or a sailing boat, which could easily make much difference, thus the IOC took a simple move: standardize them. No unfair advantage over other competitors.

In the same way, there should be standard, equal motor vehicles used at an Olympic challenge if considered, which makes the debate on the ratio between man and machine irrelevant due to everyone sharing the same percentage, thus making the competition mano a mano.

Now this all seems fine, but I can already hear you complaining that motor vehicles are WAY too complicated "tools", so a failure of one component could be the judge between winning or losing. Quite right, I shall add, but what about horses? When an equestrian hits the field in the pentathlon for example, there is an unpredictable percentage of performance credited to the horse. For one reason, there are no two identical horses (until they decide to clone them) and for another one, a horse can have a bad day too, so to speak. So if a horse does not feel like hurdling in the finals and stops in front of the first gate, that is indeed a problem cannot be solved. In the same way, a failure of a component in a motor vehicle is one of those unpredictable factors cannot be foreseen, making the horsepowers no less eligible at the Olympics than horses.

By following simple logic there seems to be no way why motorsports could not qualify as Olympic sports, the problem is rather different.

The real question is, what sort of motorsport should head to the Olympics? Because the world of motorsports is about as varied as the universe of sports in general, motor-powered competitions could in fact  have their own Olympics (and they actually have). But let's stick to the topic and suppose one could delegate one motorsport to the Olympics, what would it be.

Many would instantly say "Well, of course F1 should be the part of the Olympics, because it's the king of motorsports, blah-blah-blah...". It would almost seem reasonable, but there are multiple problems here: 1. "King of motorsports" is decided upon personal preference, it does not have anything to do with the amount of money involved or viewers' figures; 2. See problem above on equal cars, but an A1GP-sort of event would still seem reasonable; 3. Why open-wheel single seaters? 4. Why circuit racing, why not (insert any sort of motoring competition here)?; but most importantly 5. Why four wheels, why not two (three, etc.)?

Let's start with one of the most obvious problems: the sort of racing. Keeping in mind that the vehicle is just a tool, the competition could be bent and likened to any other Olympic sports. Cutting to the chase, I believe a time trial would be most appropriate over head-to-head racing, because it is the purest form of competition: who is fastest? The question is whether you look at motor racing as the 100-meter sprint or wrestling. As a matter of fact, head-to-head racing cannot be looked at as pure wrestling, because all the wrestling would happen during running. Yes, it includes a more complex driving technique but if someone is put into a gravel trap by someone else, there is no repeat, no second try, that position is lost forever - due to the fault of someone else. A time trial on the other hand eliminates all these problems and concentrates on pure speed. While wrestling cannot be conducted by any other means, motorsports can be. Whether it is conducted on a circuit or a point-to-point stage, it is almost irrelevant, but a circuit in a stadium is of course more comfortable for attendance and a lot more easier to broadcast.

The vehicles. Heavy compromise. Universally motorcycle and car racing are the two most popular and most practiced motorsports, at least at the beginning these two could be delegated. The vehicles themselves could be easily picked, just take a look at the "Race of Champions" - which is by the way a de facto Olympics of car competition. 3-4 types of vehicles used through the whole event, so drivers from different backgrounds ave a mixed experience, somewhat equalizing the chances. There is only one problem with this one, and the whole issue in general: Environment. The spirit of the Olympics (uniting people, peace, unity over differences, etc.) includes protecting our environment, thus rubber- and petrol-burning cars going sideways are definitely not the right message the IOC would want to get through. It should showcase new technology, sending the right message, so what else than some electric cars and motorcycles? Moreover, something designed specifically for the Olympics, not based on any other existing models, further emphasizing the challenge between drivers.

It all seems reasonable in my mind: a RoC-type of event where drivers are representing nations, with vehicles sending out the desired message correlating the spirit of challenge and the future.

If this is too much at once, the idea could be scaled down a lot: because if equestrian challenge is part of pentathlon, sure, driving could be part of it, too (which would make it... *gulp* sexathlon?). A short circuit/special stage/hill climb as part of this already complicated challenge could be a starting point for sure.

But this is all just speculation and playing mind-games. Why not just go for the obvious? How about an Athens to Other City Hosting The Olympics endurance rally? Like the legendary Peking to Paris, London to Mexico, London to Sydney, Liége-Sofia-Liége, Paris-Dakar rallies. Virtually following the route of the Olympic flame, instead of a sprint session, it would be the marathon for cars, trucks and motorcycles. A road rally with special stages here and there. A rally where all sorts of drivers from all sorts of backgrounds could jump in and be competitive immediately.

Can you imagine that? Athens to London? Athens to Rio de Janeiro? Winning an Olympic gold medal at the end? I think everyone can...

Friday, 27 July 2012

The Tempest - How #F1 May Have Less European Races But More Countries Involved

Black clouds are forming over the European F1 map. Voices of lack of finance are echoing from all corners of the continent. Some even fear that the circus leaves the 'old world' for good and sets foot in the Middle- and Far-East where (seemingly) unlimited money is. Is it so and if yes, what can be done about it?

Weather is the ultimate scriptwriter of motorsports. Just think the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix and you'll get the picture. But there are more subtle appearances of its influence. Think the British Grand Prix this year. No, not the parking lot Odyssey, but Murray Walker during Qualifying. While the torrential rain was in a sense very much British, it was also very much British to let Murray Walker speak. And of course, what else he could talk about but "F1 coming home". Fortunately he never forgot to mention that the actual home of Grand Prix racing is France, which is sadly not on the F1 calendar anymore. Take that and the news that the Nürburgring in Germany might close for good with Hockenheim being unable to host F1 from year-to-year alone.

This could mean that F1 could miss a consistent German GP. Lack of consistency means here that the event could be converted into bi-annual event.

In further not-so-news the Belgian GP could be off the calendar as well, as it has been hung on the verge of vanishing. I am not taking the time and the will to collect all the reasons why these events are wavering towards the exit (nevertheless they are deeply rooted in financing, what else), but what is almost certain that we can expect less European F1 races in the future. So for now let us be progressive and see where this could lead us.

Currently there are eight European rounds out of the twenty: Spain, Monaco, Europe, Great Britain, Germany, Hungary, Belgium and Italy. Quite a lot considering it is a World Championship, even when the proportions showed further European dominance in the past. Obviously Bernie Ecclestone likes consistency, little resistance and profitable events, thus it would all seem reasonable to move away from Europe to Asia, where there is less control over advertising, politics has less influence on the events, and there is money. Lots of it. But of course F1 would and could not break away from its European roots that radically, so how could you cut races in Europe while maintaining consistency and keep all the countries interested in hosting F1 races?

The recipe may be embedded in what the Germans invented a few years back. With neither the Hockenheimring or the Nürburgring was being able have an F1 race every year, they collectively decided to be the host of the German Grand Prix alternatively, making it a consistent round on the calendar, but with the duty shared.

This is something that may be applied to the whole continent in the near future. The already-saturated 20-race calendar will unlikely to be able to pick up further (European) events, but countries could come to an agreement to team up and rotate the calendar by matching up events.

The French Grand Prix is said to make a comeback. Clearly they could only do so by dodging some other round out of the calendar. Most likely the Belgian GP, which is one fan-favourite but dying on its own anyway. So why not just have a French GP one year and a Belgian the next? Same for the Russian GP. Concerning the geography and the market, the Hungarian GP is an equivalent, which is a firm competitor, being backed by the government, but not the pinnacle of F1 racing. Thus see example above.
If we are thinking this through, we could easily find European events to match up, e.g.:

  • Belgium - France/Germany
  • Hungary - Russia/Bulgaria
  • Spain - Portugal/Italy
  • Great Britain - France/Germany (ha ha!)
  • Monaco

The possibilities are of course much greater than that, but all of them seem to be a reasonable choice. By 'reasonable' of course I mean after I dodged all the rotten tomatoes and death threats from Italian, Spanish, Hungarian and British fans. Of course, there are are tracks that can afford F1 every year and willing to do so (they could bid for the European GP when being "off-season"), but may have to sacrifice their permanent status to a relay run.

Otherwise, the FIA must do something about countries left without F1, don't they?

Well, step in Formula Two. The series that have been recently revived by the FIA, seemingly unnecessarily due to the existence of GP2, GP3 (which are support events to F1 races in Europe) and other, strong single-seater series, such as the World Series by Renault (in multiple categories), Auto GP, various national and international F3 series, etc. Thus it would be a great opportunity for the FIA to promote their very own junior single-seater championship in these countries during "off-F1 season", accompanied by further, European series. This would not generate an empty spot on the calendar of the venues (not that they would not be able to fill it on their own, but at least they would be granted a fixture by the FIA), cut costs, improve variety, and the audience could further get to know more young drivers, who might be seen in F1 the next year.
This is of course just from the mind of a European who wants to see more European F1 races, but aware of the cost and the reality of it. In my mind we could have more countries involved with less races on the calendar, while reinforcing that junior series are worth watching, not just when they come in a package.

What do you think?

Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Struggle Within - FIA World Championships On The Verge Of Collapse

In medias res: FIA is fighting (or rather witnessing) a war with its own 'children'. F1 and WRC. One is forced to make decisions for its own benefit, but it might come with a price it cannot afford and gears up for war instead, while the other one just wants to be seen and not overlooked in favor of its step-sibling, not wanting to be stabbed in the back or vanish altogether. Whatever happens, it might change the future of motorsports for decades.

Perhaps needless to say that the root of the problems in both cases is finance, although from very different perspectives.

V6 turbo engines in F1 should be effective from 2014. To cut a long story short, teams don't like the idea because engines would cost more to buy (initially at least), thus they want the current engines to be in charge for as long as possible, because they are cheap and got to the point where they are bulletproof due to their perfected multi-year designs. Let's admit: there hasn't been too many engine failures in recent years. But the world of motorsports stepped to a way new level in the meantime with the added 'green' factor. And while F1 has jumped on the bandwagon with the KERS system, it just draws more attention to the elephant in the room: the engines have been the same for a long time.

When a couple of years ago engine development was frozen, it was the right thing to do for cost-effective reasons and with the added rev-limiting reliability was strengthened that enabled multi-race usage, too - another cost-cutting feature. It all seemed to be going well when the recession hit big time leaving F1 in 2009 with works teams leaving or about to leave and classic races threatened with dropout. To give a nudge and a twist to the knife in the open wound, FIA announced even more restrictions in budget and an equalizing two-tier concept between the 'big' and the 'small' teams in their new Concorde Agreement proposal. This of course enraged the Formula One Team Association enough to quickly announce a breakaway rival series to F1, where works team were free to throw around and burn money according to their good will, getting rid of all the 'green' stuff, in front of  audiences that were witnesses of decades Grand Prix tradition but deprived of F1 in recent years or with no GP tradition at all, but simply being new markets. Ultimately a compromised settlement between FIA and FOTA was made until 2012.

On a personal note, in retrospective, I would have liked to see the Grand Prix World Championship happening. Although it all seemed a disaster at the time, it would have correlated with the tradition of pre-war Grand Prix racing more - the Golden Age of its kind - with all the national works teams and the classic events.

Well, we arrived to 2012, the time for the new Concorde Agreement - mostly centered around the aforementioned V6 turbo engines. And surprise-surprise: the fulminated Flavio Briatore is rumored to be working on a GP1 series taking effect in the near future. Powered by the current, normally aspirated V8s.
This time it seems more of a reality because, frankly, all the tools are given, and this time it wouldn't do a favor to the biggest teams, but the smaller ones who would not be able to afford the new V6 engines. Delaying or postponing the new engines in F1 wouldn't be a wise choice as the manufacturers already spent a budget of the GDP of a small, third-world country each, thus giving the plan the red card would make them leave for good surely.

So what could the FIA do to save the cabbage and feed the goat at the same time?

A 'slow' introduction of V6 turbo engines would be an acceptable alternative á la Toro Rosso in 2006, where the newfound team was left without the then-new V8 powerplant on the ruins of Minardi and was forced to use V10s from the previous year, although with serious restrictions on revs. A similar transition could be achieved in a year or two in the current situation, but those who shall choose the V8 should not be part of the Constructors' Championship - if FIA really wants to push the new engines.

Whatever the solution might be, a two-tier system seems inevitable or face two separate series.

As far as WRC is concerned, the situation is quite the opposite. Or very much similar - depending on which side you take on the looking glass. WRC has to face extinction. In the 80s it was competing with F1 in popularity and was the only World Championship sanctioned by the FIA beside the open-wheel series during most of the 90s. Now it has two works team with Ford about to leave allegedly and initially no rallies signing up for the 2013 calendar due to an extra 80,000 GBP to be paid by each event's organizers.

In the meantime, the Intercontinental Rally Challenge is lavishing in works teams and televised, classic rallies despite its almost exclusively European range of territory. During its short history it saw events as the Tour de Corse, the Sanremo Rally, the Targa Florio, the Safari Rally, the Circuit of Ireland and at one point even the Monte Carlo Rally! This and works teams as Honda, Peugeot, M-Sport (de facto Ford), Renault, Skoda and Subaru makes one wonder why isn't this series called the World Rally Championship.

Where did it go all wrong and how IRC become such a massive success in such a short time? Parts of the answer has already been detailed as above, but the presence of works teams had to be settled first. What have IRC had that WRC doesn't?

The answer might lie in two crucial errors made by the FIA on behalf of WRC: granting media (i.e. TV) exposure and introducing the rotating calendar. In other words: it had a convincing live appearance all around the world, but on the downside one could never expect if one's favorite event would return the next year. Combine this with the relatively hard access to it by the masses. Put it simply: a WRC run completely new to the calendar capable of giving the jizz almost exclusively to the locals only due to hard to find it on TV. As opposed to IRC that simply picked up events familiar even to non-motorsports enthusiasts and were left out of the WRC calendar, with having granted first-class coverage on EuroSport. The different approaches resulted in the strange phenomenon in 2009 and 2010 where WRC was left without the Monte Carlo Rally while IRC had the Col de Turini televised live on EuroSport.

And maybe there's a third reason: FIA being at IRC as a sanctioning body only, not peeking over their shoulders all the time. Nevertheless, this sandbox war happens in its own backyard. Such as the alleged F1 vs. GP1 battle.

What is the FIA doing? Perhaps five world championships is just too much, never mind that F1 - the most popular motorsport and one of the most viewed sports in general all around the world - is one of them? And where could all this lead in the future?

(Un)fortunately, motorsports have been there already. IndyCar is one prime example. When the Indy Racing League dissected from IndyCar, it took the Indy 500 with it and nothing more. It promised low-cost, but competitive racing, truer to American traditions and having one race from the "Triple Crown of Motor Sports". The other half, CART/ChampCar seemed altogether strong and somewhat unbeatable: engines and chassis from different manufacturers, not one-make series as the rival one. But something happened down the line. People started watching NASCAR and even in the decreasing TV figures IRL started slowly coming up and finally beating ChampCar. Also, Team Penske and Ganassi Racing decided to do their own take and go to the Indy 500 anyway later with more and more teams leaving ChampCar in favor of IRL, manufacturers leaving the dying series altogether. The double bankruptcy of the series' owner didn't help either and led to the merge of the two series creating once again a unified IndyCar Series.

What were the crucial downfalls of the ChampCar series that are relevant to our current case with F1 and WRC beside finance?

Briefly: disrespecting traditions.

ChampCar couldn't be further from the American tradition. It virtually had no input from the USA as far as the cars were concerned. One could order chassis from British manufacturers and engines from Toyota, Honda, Mercedes or Cosworth. that sounds more like an F1 assembly rather than an all-American showdown. And then the races. The US developed an open-wheel racing tradition on oval tracks and ChampCar managed to put out a calendar with zero oval races on it in its final year. And for the same reason, European and South-American drivers dominated the championship for over a decade, which didn't help to build the American image either - turning more viewers to NASCAR.

But it's all back now, with a completely new car, various engine manufacturers and a growing demand to more oval tracks, as they are providing immense amount of spectacle.

Same way with WRC and IRC: a merger of the two series seems inevitable if FIA doesn't want to lose WRC's credibility and time is running out: the more they hesitate, the more races will sign up for IRC - the current torch-carrier of traditional events and teams. WRC will lose to IRC at some point, the question is when.

As far as F1 and GP1 is concerned: it is a lot harder mountain to climb, but Bernie burned enough bridges to worth revisiting many of the events that were rejected by F1 long ago or discovering new places to race (not necessarily with the most up-to-date venues). This and a well-known, easily accessible format to racing and regulations could make even the big teams think and would be essentially a no-brainer for the rest of the field to switch. The question is whether Briatore would be able to convince such heavy weapon machinery akin to Ferrari to "join the dark side".

For the final word in the matter is: where Ferrari goes, de facto Formula 1 will there be.

FIA, it is now your turn: WEC has just been reborn. WTCC is overshadowed by one works team. GT1WC is dying. WRC is about to lose out to a rival series. F1 is seduced by easy money.

You were looking so much forward to reinvent everything at the same time that you were fooled by simplicity and old wisdom.

Pick up the fight, go!

Friday, 20 April 2012

Project "Grand Legacy" - a film on the birth of #F1

"Grand Legacy" is my little project. Aimed to tell the story of Renault and Ferenc Szisz and their fabulous win at the first French Grand Prix in 1906 - the grandfather of all contemporary F1 races.

Also, it would give an insight to the races preceding the event: the 1905 Gordon Bennett Cup and the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup.

All this presented with contemporary F1, IndyCar and other images from various racing series.

Two work-in-progress videos from the middle of the film, showing the Vanderbilt Cup of 1905 with the images of the 1996 US 500 - where the Vanderbilt Cup was revived for the first time.

Please leave comments, and keep in mind that this is all work-in-progress, like I said, so creative advises are very much welcome.

Friday, 2 March 2012

How McLaren Is Killing The Supercar

While not long ago I put the McLaren F1 as the best supercar ever made, their latest venture, the MP4-12C - named after their 1997 F1 car, is somewhat of a letdown. Moreover, I dare to say, McLaren is down the road to kill the content behind the term 'supercar'.

I have never owned a supercar. I have never driven one. I barely see one on the roads. And that is exactly I am entitled to make a judgement here.

The reason behind the McLaren roadcar-bashing is mainly the materials used in the car. Supercars are not made of steel, aluminium, carbon-fibre, magnesium, different alloys - contrary to the popular belief - but dreams. Cloudy, candy floss images where cars are war horses and roads are deadly dungeons. And within these dreams the McLaren MP4-12C fits in as well as a minister of equal opportunities in a street riot.

Yes, the McLaren is fast, faster than almost everything else put out lately, it is equipped with a grand mixture of technological advancements with groundbreaking "green" figures. And as Chris Harris pointed out, the car is easy to live with, it can behave as an ordinary car in ordinary, everyday situations.

And that exactly my problem is.

Because yes, it works properly in all situations and it is quick indeed, it is a perfect street, road and track car, where every engineered part is subordinated to performance and usability, ditching styling as something old-school, but that compromise comes with a price.

There is no other way of putting the problem but with the words of Hungarian motoring journalist Gabor Bazso (aka Nino Karotta) who - in his pursuit of designing and building his own Datsun 260Z trackday car - contemplated over the design of the car's new, flared wheelarches:
"I am unable to envision the curve of the rear wheelarches upon aerodynamic basis. This is not the sort of motorsport where every single air-molecule is forced to take a different route around the body. This should be left to Adrian Newey. Only in good looks I am interested in. ... I don't care whether those air-molecules fly by slowly or quickly, I just want them to have an erection while doing so."
In other words, the McLaren is just not inspiring enough. Or at all. I can't imagine the person who's dreaming about the McLaren, although he should be the sort of person who's browsing and comparing torque figures in his spare time, rather than Playboy centerfolds.

The other thing is the handling, and this is the most crucial part. There is nothing wrong with a well-designed chassis and great balance. It's the abundance of electronics. In fact, McLaren decided to put Michael Schumacher's brain in the car. It is like if Schuey himself was sitting in the passanger seat with extra pedals for him as in driving instructors' cars. He greets you with a big smile and says: "Today, we are going to go fast." So you're putting your foot on the pedal, hitting an A-road, while Schuey not saying anything. He will however dance his way through on his own pedals, breaking when needed, accelerating when needed. And out of every corner he is putting a big smile on his face with a "Well done!" look in his eyes, thinking "Mein Gott!" in the meantime.

Honestly, are you still dreaming of a car your mother can drive, too?

And what is it that it slices through city traffic easily? Who ever wanted a practical supercar? I know, it's the Honda NSX that started the whole trend, but the whole sexepil of that car at the time was going against the trends and putting handling before power, while retaining a reasonably sized boot. The MP4-12C does that too. And some more. And again, more, until the point it overkills it. In fact, killing it. Not just committing suicide, but endangering the species of supercars. Because if it's a practical supercar you want, why not start your search at the other end of the scale and look for high-performance saloons? No, a BMW M5 won't go as fast around the corner as the McLaren, but it has four seats, a big boot, tremendous amount of power, and a huge smile-factor.

So what does McLaren do?

McLaren is making speed accessible. It's making it commonplace. It's just putting more numbers at the bottom right corner of the speedometer. It's making the supercar friendly.

McLaren is now turning James Hunt into Lewis Hamilton.

It is your choice to decide whether you'd have a beer with James or talking of suspensions with Lewis.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

My Crush On FWD Four-Door Saloons

"So what is this thing with you and front wheel-drive four-door saloons?" asked Tiff Needell almost pinning me against the wall at this party at a Goodwood lounge. I had a waverly look at him as my goatie hairs gently pulsed under his cider-flavoured breath and threw an arm towards Chris Harris to help me out. "Well..." I started with a croaking voice and an uncomfortable look in my eyes, trying to kill time until Chris was willing to come over. "The thing is with these cars is that they are not BMWs... or Astons...or Mercs, *ahem* but something that... you know... you can buy... for real." That didn't seem to convince Tiff and I was ready to threw new arguments into our Pythonesque conversation, but just as I opened my mouth, he indulged himself into a monologue concerning the new BMW M5, rear-wheel drive, chassis setup, and all those sorts of things while spilling cider on his shoes and the floor. Luckily enough, Harris finally came around with a pint of Löwenbrau in his hand, listened to Tiff's tech-talk and just as the grey-haired presenter stopped for a minute, he dropped the final words to end the conversation. "The sandwiches are really good, you should try them." and with that, he passed his beer over to me and made his way over the loo.

Of yourse, you wouldn't read any of this if I didn't try to come up with a point to start this post, attempting to put words into famous road-testers' mouth upon why I love front-wheel drive saloons. Because there is no real argument in this topic, there are no pros or cons, just personal affection, my personal crush on these cars without a single logical piece of objective explanation.

Or is there one? Let's find out.

Personally, I never owned a four-door saloon, but I really feel I should. And to get to the point, four-door saloons are one of the most impractical practical cars as of 2012, yet one of the most sold ones around the world.

With the massive spread of hatchbacks, saloons got stuck as something obsolete between the hatchback and the estate category. Because, first of all, why would you want a saloon?

You would say it's the big boot space, for example. But no, it is not that much bigger as the car itself is compared an ordinary hatchback, but it is the same length as its estate counterpart that has virtually endless amount of boot space. You then could say there's enough room for your family to sit in the car, with comfortable legroom at the back seats, but again, it loses the point contrary to the estate, which has the same amount of legroom, plus the afore-mentioned boot space. Then you could mention the price that is slightly lower than of an estate, but when it comes to fitting the dog or the childrens' small bicycles in the car, your regular interior cleaning bill comes quickly into even terms with the price difference between the two.

So again, why would you buy a saloon?

Well, the simple answer is because they look great. Of course I'm not talking about saloons that were converted from hatchbacks, but proper, ground-up saloons - limousines if you like. They just have this sinister look on the street, especially in dark colours, preferably dark blue, grey or black. With some chrome trimming here and there, they really look like something of class compared to the rest of the usual cars on the roads.

Now the real petrolhead could say "Yes, you got a point there, but why front-wheel drive? It is the worst thing ever happened to the car, closely followed by large cupholders and automatic transmission."

First things first, cupholders are great when you are stuck in a traffic jam, and automatic transmission is just wonderful when... you are stuck in a traffic jam. But they really don't have much to do with actual driving, so let's get back to our original point. Front-wheel drive does have practical advantages over RWD, especially with saloons and estates - meaning of course the prop-shaft and the rear axle occupying valuable room from the backseats and the boot in an FR-layout car - but let's not cite this fact here when I just proved superiority of saloons over everything else by means of single affection, but the other, most important practical argument is FWD's price. Because, as you may noticed, we live in a world where RWD is now the toy of higher-class manufacturers, meaning of course BMW and Mercedes in the first place being the cheapest of these. Looking back, perhaps the Ford Sierra and the Opel Omega/Vauxhall Carlton were the last affordable FR-layout cars and that piece of the market is simply missing now.

Yes, RWD is more fun, yes, enjoyable to drive, but even when you have the money to buy and maintain a BMW or a Mercedes, you cannot avoid the terms "hoon" and "posh" tagged onto you, respectively.

Also, this doesn't mean FWD four-door saloons should be boring. Let's just take motorsports pedigree. Touring car racing loves FWD saloons. Maybe not as much as hatchbacks, but still, they still can be good use in a contact-motorsport like BTCC. And if you just look at the podium at the end of each WTCC race, you'll notice that it is covered with one factory team with four-door saloons from race to race. Germany of course is the European heaven of RWD, so if you look at DTM, two out of three saloons represented are RWD with Audi still being 4WD or FWD, with the actual, purpose-built racecars all being RWD of course. Or just have a look at NASCAR. The most widely viewed motorsport right after F1. Its top series, the Sprint Cup features four four-door saloons, out of which three are front-wheel drive in real life with the Dodge Charger basically being a plain muscle car with two further doors attached, rather than a high-performance saloon. Of course, none of these make the actual cars more exciting, but their sheer layout and balance make them capable to perform probably the most spectacular motoring guilty pleasure on Earth, the "arab drift".

But this is not the purpose of a FWD four-door saloon. The point of the whole car should be to give you a sort of down-to-earth class - or rather dignity - for good money, without the negative preconceptions attached to the luxurious RWD counterparts. It should tell other people, you are an ordinary person with a sinister life. You have a proper house you worked for, a proper car you earned and you just simply have the right to drive a slightly big car that is not a 100% workhorse as an estate would be.

In other words, a front-wheel drive four-door saloon makes you feel and look like a capital-letter CITIZEN, as all of us want to be. And for a strange reason, that is my crush.

Well, Tiff seems to have fallen asleep, I should give him a ride home in this Peugeot 605.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

N/A N/A - The Death of Non-Turbo Engines

While less than a year ago I was melting in awe of the mightiness of the classic turbocharged engine, opinions took an opposie lock during the time elapsed and bounced off the Wall of Champions. But it's not the turbo's fault. Let me explain.

I'm still in love with the epic turbo-lag caused by a small engine - gigantic turbocharger combination. Only turbo has become too much commonplace in the sense that its original purpose has been confiscated and replaced by a green toe-thumb tag. In fact, I was the first one to jump from the armchair and throw hands in the air when it was announced officially that turbocharged V6 engines would replace the current naturally aspirated V8s in Formula 1 from 2014 while questioning the rationality behind the year - why not 2013?

FIA has tried everything to simplify the super-complicated aerodynamics of recent F1 cars, with a brief initial success only. Ultimately they figured out - shock! - that when a whole field of cars were and have been running with engines developed years ago - forbidding any further improvement on them - while restricting the revs they would operate at, then teams would find every other possible ways to get to the top of the grid, which ultimately resulted e.g. in tricky engine mappings, but most of the time exploiting aerodynamic loopholes with additional, flexible wings slowly reappearing on the cars with mysterious air ducts tunnelling through the body, making a few extra kph advantage on the straights. FIA ultimately threw in the towel and voted for a new engine formula resembling one from the 80s, so everyone would start tinkering with the powerplants, building the aerodynamics from the ground up.

They said it was going with the times. Turbocharging was now not only the means to keep power up but also a way to lower emission rates in F1.

I'm sorry. In F1?

As a matter of fact, since when turbocharging has been considered to be a greener way to move around?

While I do know and accept the math behind it, I still find myself in a bit of controversy, a twisted cognitive dissonance. This was the point where I pulled a hipster act to proclaim the now commonplace turbocharged engine 'uncool'.

The whole issue just hit me when I started thinking about diesel engines and I found myself unable to come up with one single, non-turbocharged engine that still is in production and is put into cars. I managed to get aid from Twitter, creating some minor buzz someone even dedicating the hashtag #lastnonturbodiesel to the matter. The final solution came down to one single model, the VW Caddy - not a frequent sight on the roads, by the way. But when we move the topic to petrol-powered cars, things do not get so much different.

In the past years, attention to environment avareness in the whole motoring industry pulled a high gear and turned everything upside down. MPG became the new MPH and devotion spent on CO2 emission rates in catalogues even surpassed luggage space size info.

As far as turbocharging is considered, it is now the temporary savior of the petrol engine while not yet trespassing the 'hybrid' territory. Ford managed to reinvent hot water naming their latest powerplant family 'EcoBoost', which basically represents engines of various layouts losing two cylinders and an added turbo.

Yes, downsized turbo engines perform better as far as economical and environmental factors concerned. But from a petrolhead's point of view turbo is becoming more and more out of place.

I have to give it to Clarkson this time, who just raised the issue in Top Gear driving the Lamborghini Aventador, showing favouritism to be the naturally aspirated V12 over his co-presenters turbocharged engines. Marginal, but intriguing case: why supercars need turbocharged engines? I mean, does any supercar owner care about economy and MPG figures over overall performance? If someone does, I imagine the person taking the bus or the bicycle to work, or some sort of hybrid car to show off awareness. I cannot imagine a heated argument between owners over CO2 emission rates and frequency of filling up, but rather crispiness of acceleration and reaction times, as Tiff Needell pointed out in Fifth Gear.

Unfortunately the problem does not stop here. Manufacturers of normal, everyday cars are being forced (see what I did there?) to go for turbocharging for economical reason. while it sounds appealing, as a side effect, even the smallest hatchbacks are becoming mechanically over-complicated.

Does one need a car for everyday quick running up and down in the town with something relatively so fragile?

Just a few grams of CO2 per kilometre gained making something reliable... not so reliable, from a tool to an e-device with a booting ceremony.

In my mind it's all wrong from a practical point of view and from a petrolhead's perspective as well. My brother, who happens to own a Lancia Delta HF Turbo, said he had been dreaming of getting a turbocharged car for long years while it was inaccessible in everyday rides. Now he has one, times have moved on in the meantime and became just an old hatchback to some extent, regardless of its mighty pedigree.

As a conclusion we may add that the high-performance naturally aspirated engine is the new cool, the 2010s answer to the 1980s turbo-invasion.

The spirit of Enzo Ferrari once again rules.