Thursday, 24 November 2011

Only mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Rallying

Deep in the heart of the East Rand - a place one doesn’t go very often – is a very muddy field and a few dilapidated buildings that make up the RallyStar rally school venue.
Nothing much special there, you could say, but when the rally cars that are blasting round there are worth R2.5million each,  go like a bat out of hell and have various words like ‘6 Times National Rally Champions’ after the name, one does tend to sit up and take a bit of notice, despite the surroundings.

As a bit of a jolly and thank you to sponsors and the media alike, VW invited us to go for a quick spin in one of four cars assembled for the day. Sadly, we weren’t to drive the cars, but be mere passengers. However, when there is about as much chance of my getting out of first gear as there is of dating Charlize Theron (just to keep the East Rand theme going, you understand) it was possibly wiser to leave it to the experts if any fun was to be had at all.

And boy, what fun. After being reminded that, in the general scheme of things, we weren’t all that important in the event of crashing and burning - especially when it was probably our fault that we crashed in the first place by just being there – we were strapped in and driven off.
Actually, no, that’s wrong. We were strapped in and we took off. That’s better. There are barely words to describe the performance of these cars. They seem constantly on the very brink of utter disaster and destruction; every action is one of extreme violence, whether accelerating, decelerating, braking, turning; even the mechanical elements of engine and gearbox are simply brutal in their performance - no room for the mechanically squeamish here.
The one great surprise is the suspension, which is nothing short of astounding. What appears to be a bump in the road that should send the front wheel into orbit is merely smoothed out as if it wasn’t there.
Of course it could just be that you have seen the next immovable obstacle that you are heading for and, as such, have temporarily suspended all conscious recognition of the here and now; as if you had just run over the Titanic but didn’t notice because up ahead was Mount Everest.

The drivers are phenomenal. Utterly devoid of any conventionally measurable brain patterns, of course; how else could they do what they do? If the cars are on the ragged edge, it is because the drivers have put them there and it is such a fine line between death or glory that to perform the balancing act must take a distinct lack of imagination as to the consequences of failure.
Maybe the concept of failure just doesn’t enter into their make-up?
Profound thanks to the VW BP National Rally Championship team, the crews and the drivers for the experience of a lifetime. 

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Vespa Quarantasei (46 to you and me)

Have to say that scooters have not played a large part in my life up to now, but this is a little beauty. Super retro, of course, as is everything that is worthwhile these days, but it has to be said, it's a sexy little Italian number. 
And don't the Italians have a wonderful way with words? Quarantasei just sounds so much better than Forty-Six, doesn't it? Although maybe not to the Italians....

This Week I Is mostly not falling off.....

2011-onwards Kawasaki Z100SX – ‘S’ for Special, ‘X’ for Extra (Apparently)

The SX is the faired version of the naked Z1000 which has been such a success for Kawasaki. At first glance it appears similar to the ZX10R I rode a couple of weeks ago, but actually they are as different as can be, in conception, execution and nature.
Where the ZX10R was just utterly insane, the Z1000SX is merely harmlessly daft. The big engine feels comparatively lazy, with much more low-down torque and a red-line that is a few thousand less than its screaming brother. It’s actually a really good engine to ride, with a seamless spread of mid-range torque but still with some excitement at the top end.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t go when you twist the throttle; it’s no slouch but it just lacks that ‘oh dear, I’m going to die’ element that makes the ZX10R what it is.
But as an all-round proposition, it makes an awful lot of sense. It may lack the ultimate pillion comfort of a dedicated cruiser but for a combination of long-distance and town riding, it is hard to beat. The quality of the finish is very good and there’s a real feeling of solidity to the bike.
This feeling carries on through the riding experience; it just feels planted and secure on the road. One ride I did was in pelting rain with a wicked side wind on the highway, but the machine cared a lot less than I did! In the dry there’s no faulting the ride and handling, although, let’s face it, in this day and age if there is something wrong with either department, the bike shouldn’t be on the road in the first place. Vibration levels over the 2010 model have been reduced by rubber-mounting the footpegs.
There’s nothing particularly fancy about the chassis or running gear – some might say that for the price, this shouldn’t really be so – but there is multi-adjustable suspension for those who know what to do with it. The fuel tank is 4-litres larger than the naked Z1000 at 19litres giving it a useful range boost that underlines the role Kawasaki see this bike fulfilling.
As an overall no-frills package that will do what it was designed to with no problems it would be hard to beat if you were looking for a large capacity Japanese four-cylinder bike. In real-world terms there is probably little to differentiate the Kawasaki from its direct competition from Honda and Suzuki, but, in my opinion, it scores over both those bikes in its styling and looks. But once you get into that realm, it is all down to personal preference.
One thing is obvious, though; it certainly doesn’t look as if it is a naked bike that has been hastily covered up with some fairings – the design looks very unified and integrated. And it is this that sets the bike apart from the competition.
Kawasaki Z 1000SX
Year 2011-12
Engine Liquid cooled, four stroke, transverse four cylinder, DOHC, 4 valve per cylinder.
Capacity 1043cc
Bore x Stroke     77.0 x 56.0mm
Compression Ratio          11.8:1
Induction DFI® with four 38mm Keihin throttle bodies, oval sub-throttles
Ignition /Starting; TCBI with digital advance   /  electric
Max Power; 101.5 kW 138 C     
Max Torque; 110 Nm 11.2 kg-fm @ 7800 rpm
Transmission/Drive; 6 Speed  /  chain
Frame Type: Aluminum Backbone
Rake/Trail; 24.5 degrees / 4.1 in.
Front Suspension; 41 mm inverted fork with rebound damping and progressive compression and preload adjustment
Rear Suspension; Back-link rear horizontal coupling charged gas, progressive rebound damping and spring preload adjustment
Front Brakes; 2x 300mm discs 4 piston caliper
Rear Brakes Single; 250mm disc 1 piston caliper
Front Tyre; 120/70 -R17
Rear Tyre; 190/50- ZR17
Seat Height; 822 mm
Weight; 228 kg / 231 kg ABS
Fuel Capacity; 19 Litres

Monday, 14 November 2011

This week I am mostly riding.....

2011 Kawasaki Z1000SX
Could this be the perfect road bike? I'll tell you in a week. And this time, i'm confident of making it through in one piece....

Monday, 7 November 2011

Great Bikes?

 Honda CB750, 1969

Clean lines, clean garage floor. Smooth, quiet, reliable.
The British were right to be worried.
If there was one bike that sounded the death knell for the British motorcycle industry (after all their own hard work to kill it themselves) it was the Honda CB750 Four. Certainly there had been Japanese bikes on the market before this, but they were all of a smaller engine capacity and that market had been diminishing since the late 50’s as the price difference between cars and bikes had closed, thus negating the advantage of the small bike as cheap transport.
It wasn't just the Triumph/Norton recipe
that made good cafe racers
By the time the big Honda arrived, the best the British could offer were vertical, parallel twins that were long in the tooth, vibrated like mad, leaked oil and were unreliable, with poor brakes and dubious chassis technology. Even the Triumph Trident/BSA Rocket 3 of 1969 was no great leap forward, with woefully underdeveloped engines and dreadful styling.
Kawasaki had fired the first shots across the bows with the 500cc Mach lll of 1969, but this offered staggering performance in a really dangerous chassis. Motorcycle lore has it that few of the original owners of the Mach lll survived.
The Honda was altogether more civilised. Electric starter, disc brakes front and back, silky smooth and leak free, 5-speed gearbox and the reliability that the Honda name was famous for. How could it lose?
Honda were quietly confident...
There was nothing startling about the engineering; undersquare cylinder dimensions, a modest 9 to 1 compression ratio and a lightened valve train allowed over 8,000rpm and good power. There was still one carburettor per cylinder and chain primary drive, housed in a tubular double-cradle frame. Horizontally split crankcases and advanced assembly techniques put paid to unwanted oil leaks.
Much is made of the Triumph Twin’s longevity, but the transversely mounted, overhead camshaft, in-line four engine that the CB750 introduced to production motorbikes is still the most popular layout and looks set to remain that way. The CB750’s popularity, performance and reliability dealt the final blow to both the vertical twin and the British motorcycle industry and kick-started a new era in motorcycling.

Great Bikes?

1938 Triumph Speed Twin
There are many reasons why the twin-cylinder engine made such a big impact when it was introduced by Triumph in 1938. Scarcely wider than the equivalent singles it made obsolete, it was a pragmatic solution to the market’s desire for something smoother and more powerful than a single yet less complex by far than multi-cylinder machines.
In addition, the structure of UK vehicle tax which rated on piston area, pushed British designs to smaller, harder working engines. Why go bigger and lazier, as the Americans’ promoted, when the smaller twin was much more efficient?
Even though it still vibrated, the vibrations were less severe than the equivalent, heavier single, due to the shorter stroke, which also allowed higher RPM and, coupled with greater valve area, more power.
In laying the foundations for the post-war boom in the British motorcycling industry, the Triumph twin became an icon that was copied by every other manufacturer of large capacity ‘bikes. Curiously, however, it remained a very British design. The Americans stuck to their V-Twins and the Italians and later, Japanese, went down the multi-cylinder route for road and racing machinery.
The immortal Triumph Twin motor
Despite, and maybe because of, America’s reliance on the V-Twin for its home grown product, it was the American riders who were instrumental in the capacity of the twin rising from 500cc to 650cc and later 750cc to provide the power they demanded both on the road and in competition. This was a shame as, in its 500cc guise the Triumph engine is beautifully smooth and can be tuned to a ridiculous degree. Later, larger versions, whilst having more power and torque, vibrated more. This wasn’t a problem confined solely to Triumph; Norton resorted to rubber mountings for their twin.
Triumph stole a march on their rivals with the introduction of the Speed twin in 1938. The onset of war merely consolidated that lead. The Speed Twin was revolutionary in its engineering; the genius of Edward Turner did the rest. The use of chrome and pinstriped painted panels on the tank and wheels, highly polished chain cases and the Amaranth Red paint finish added up to a machine that was streets ahead of the competition.
It is easy to knock the British motorcycle industry for throwing away the huge market and global lead it had going into the sixties by relying on increasingly antiquated designs. The parallel twin engine, being at the heart of the motorcycle, is also looked upon with derision, especially in the face of massively superior offerings from the Far East.
But, just as the Japanese came along with their own quantum leap in engine design, so it must be seen that Triumph made a similar leap back in 1938 and left us with a legacy of great bikes that is every bit as significant as anything that followed. 


 More off than on..

From the moment you swing a leg over the F800GS, it is obvious that this is a completely different proposition to the Triumph. Despite the two bikes vying for the same market, their approaches are totally opposite. Whereas the Triumph is really a road bike with off-road pretensions, which never seem very realistic, the BMW feels like an off-roader with on-road pretensions, which are also not terribly convincing.
The suspension of the BMW is much softer than the Triumph, which feels taut and controlled. The BMW doesn’t exactly wallow around, but you get the feeling that it is set up for off-roading and not on-road work.  
The BMW has one of these
The engine, albeit with the standard exhaust fitted, is nowhere near as distinguished sounding as the Triumph’s triple, especially with the aftermarket Arrow system with which the Triumph was fitted. Nor can it hold a candle in terms of performance to the Triumph. If anything, it actually sounds and feels really rough and isn’t as punchy as you would expect a twin-cylinder 800cc engine should be. However, for unthreatening off-road performance it would be perfect; it is neither too peaky or lacking in torque low down.
In fact, everything about this bike points to it being ultimately one-track-minded and it’s all in the details. For example, the ABS can be turned off via a handlebar mounted button and the front brake fluid reservoir is loosely rubber mounted; no doubt to avoid disaster if the bike is inverted. It does mean that it wobbles very un-BMW like when riding but, like everything BMW, it smacks of detail thinking at design level. Also, the rubber inserts into the footpegs can be removed to leave serrated-edged metal pegs for better grip.
The problem that I can see with the F800 is that it is so focussed on off road riding that it suffers on road and, given that these bikes will spend at least 90% of their time on the road, it just isn’t enough to beat its rivals.
I really wanted to like this bike, having had many years of fun on BMW’s and believing in their design philosophy. However, even if I had ridden it before I rode the Triumph, it would have been eclipsed by that bike. Having said that, if I was setting out on a serious trip through Africa, it would be the BMW that would win hands down.
The impression one is left with is that this bike was designed very much with the adventure rider in mind, whilst the Triumph merely pays lip service to the concept and is simply a tall version of their sports road bikes. 

2011 Kawasaki ZX10R

Beam Me Up, Scotty

I love this bike, but it will kill me! It has performance parameters that will in all likelihood never be reached, even by the skilled owner on track. The chassis dynamics are out of this world and the whole bike feels as if it has been engineered out of a single solid billet of aluminium; everything works with a chunky precision that makes the rider feel that he is directly connected to every part of the machine.
But is it a bike for the roads of a city? Is it even a bike for open roads? Actually; no. This is a bike that can make no sense except on a track. Of course I am not just talking about this particular bike, but the whole superbike genre; they are just so focussed on performance to the exclusion of anything else.
Before its thought that I am a doddering old fool who has no place on anything more than a scooter or, preferably, nowhere near a bike at all, let me say again that I love this bike; I love the engineering that has gone into it; I love the levels of its capabilities and the fact that it is faster than a rocket ship; I love the looks that seem to threaten physical violence if you look at it the wrong way. But, because of the emotion that it stirs in me, I am absolutely gutted that it is so single minded in its purpose and that it is so unsuitable for everyday road use. And that I will never be rider enough to take this thing to its maximum.
For inner city riding the bike is so out of its comfort zone that it seems almost cruel to expose it to this sort of treatment. There is hardly ever any need to take it out of second or third gear or even use half the available revs in either gear. I mean, it will reach 100kmh in first and still want to go even further. It is a rev hungry engine and, as such, hasn’t got what you might call stump pulling torque low down. But it also means that it isn’t a bike for shuffling around on; that would be like taking a thoroughbred racehorse for a walk through a forest. No, with this, it’s flat out or nothing.
Things are not much better for the rider. All the weight is thrust onto the arms and wrists and you sit so hunched over that you are forced to look through the car in front rather than over it. You soon get a crick in your neck and the ergonomics of the instruments are diabolical. They are so far out of your line of sight that it takes a movement of the head downwards to bring the eyes onto it but, when they are there, the information is so badly presented you would need a few seconds to decipher it and at the speeds this bike is capable of, that’s too long. With your chin flat on the tank they are perfectly in your line of sight, which is one more clue to the bike’s real purpose.
Out on the open road it makes a little more sense; the wind pressure takes weight off the arms and there is more space to use some of the available performance. But the fact of the matter is that this performance is so effortless that it is easy to find yourself barrelling into a corner at least 60km/h faster than your skill level can handle.
Whilst such performance is by no means a new phenomenon in motorcycling, surely it is time for a review of how such bikes are sold. Why would it be a restriction on people’s rights to make it a condition of purchase to go for advanced rider training and even a series of track days? The point of this is not to teach riders how to go fast, but to understand the limits of the machines they are buying and so recognise that in a particular situation that might occur on the road, the bike has sufficient ability to possibly get them out of the trouble they suddenly find themselves in.
Maybe I am missing the point; so they are just thinly veiled, road legal track bikes; a flagship model to reflect glory onto the rest of the range. But as a practical means of transport which, let’s face it, is why most of us buy a motorbike (conveniently leaving out emotion for a moment), it falls flat on its face. Don’t get me wrong, as the ultimate expression of a motorcycle - existing because it can - I love it. But let’s be under no illusion that if you had this in your garage, you would need a second two-wheeled vehicle – be it motorbike or scooter – for everyday use and how many of us have that sort of money knocking around?

Engine size          998cc
Engine specification        16v transverse four, 6 gears
Frame   Aluminium back bone
Front suspension adjustment    Preload, compression and rebound
Rear suspension adjustment      Preload, compression and rebound
Front brakes      2 x 310mm with radial four piston calipers
Rear brake          220mm disc
Front tyre size   120/70 x 17
Top speed           186mph
1/4-mile acceleration     10.6 secs
Power   185.4bhp – up to 200bhp with ram air effect
Torque 83.3ftlb
Weight 169kg
Seat height         830mm
Fuel capacity      17 litres
Average fuel consumption          40mpg
Tank range          150 miles
Rear tyre size     190/55 x 17
Thrill factor; Warp 10

MotoGP, Valencia, 2011

Yes...Yes....YYeeesss....oh, no.
I was all ready to dismiss this race, and indeed this season, as one of the most boring races/racing seasons of all time. Then the last three laps happened and we were almost, for a fleeting moment, back to the not-so-bad old days of the early 2000’s as we had a fight to the wire which ended in the underdog not winning, despite looking like he might.
We are at a curious crossroads n MotoGP in that we are being forced to look at Casey Stoner as one of the greats; but he gives us little, apart from his race win statistics, by which to find him an attractive champion. Not for him the crowd-pleasing antics of Rossi – contrived, calculated or simply accidental – but rather a cold desire to win by the largest margin possible; sod spectacle, I’ve won.
We can’t realistically blame him for winning in such a dominant fashion. Just as in Formula 1, first with Schumacher and now with Vettel, these guys are paid to win and if the circumstances of chance bring the best rider and best bike together in a season, who are we to deny them their success even if it denies us the spectacle of a great race?
Was it not Casey Stoner who, after crashing so many times in his first two seasons of MotoGP and earning a reputation that was not unequal to Marco Simoncelli’s, climbed aboard the Ducati and turned it into a championship winner, something that not even Rossi has been able to do? To then climb onto the Honda and trounce his team-mates who have been with the team for longer than he has, indicates that the guy is clearly a genius rider. But, stir the soul he does not.
And, understand it or not, and quite unlike Formula 1, bike racing does stir the soul. Or at least it should do. Motorcycle racing is so clearly a battle not between a rider and his rivals, but between a rider and his machine, and it is all right in front of us to see and admire. Whilst a car driver sits in a cocoon of carbon fibre, hidden to the world, the bike racer is there for all to see – arms, legs, body, everything and, whether he is absolutely on the limit or way beyond it and cartwheeling down the track, it is he who we are watching and not the machine.
So why, with the greatest mixture of ingredients, is it that we are subjected to hideously dull and processional races that serve no other purpose than to turn off armchair spectators in their droves?  There is just no passion in MotoGP at the moment and the ever-fickle media have even abandoned Rossi because he has stopped troubling the podium, let alone winning a race. Nothing is old hat like yesterday’s star fading.
I have seriously become very blasé about catching a MotoGP race of late because it is almost guaranteed to be sleep-inducing. A quick check of the sports pages the next day tells you all without making you feel like you have missed anything.
Another problem is that no-one actually likes a champion who hasn’t proved his worth in combat. Danny Pedrosa can win brilliantly from the front – dull as hell as it maybe – but put him into a scrap for first place and all bets are off. It’s the same with Stoner; he has proven that he can run away with a race but examples of his having a race-long scrap and coming out on top are few and far between.
Look, it is awful to have to refer backwards, let alone to a particular rider, but references to Rossi are unavoidable, past it as he may be. Single-handedly he brought passion and excitement back into racing; probably helped that he was from Italy and not Northern England, but that’s not his fault!
Now, with Simoncelli gone, it seems as if we have been robbed of a natural successor to kick the sport up the backside and make it fun again. Of course, no one rider can make the paltry grids look any more populated. After watching 30+ riders start the Moto2 race, watching 14 or 15 start a MotoGP race, especially when only two or three have a realistic chance of winning, is, or should be, very embarrassing to those in charge.
There will be those who will claim that yesterday’s race was a classic, but they are wrong. What we had was the leader disappearing into the distance and then a squabble for second and, no matter which way you cut it, a squabble for second is still a squabble for the first loser. Then that squabble caught up the leader and passed him and, for the past few laps we were almost treated to a race. Ben Spies couldn’t quite make a break and Stoner wasn’t letting him get away. Last corner and Spies just holding on but the drag to the line sees the Honda take the win by a thousandth of a second.
If that’s what passes for a great race in this day and age, you can keep your MotoGP.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Gilera Fuoco 500i.e.

Gilera Fuoco 500i.e.

All motorcyclists are show-offs to a greater or lesser extent and the Gilera Fuoco definitely gets more than its fair share of attention, whether on the move or standing still.
In essence it belongs to the ‘maxi-scooter’ category of small-wheeled bikes with big engines, in this case a 500cc, four-stroke single. The three-wheeled layout is what sets it apart from its rivals but it is not just a novelty.
The amount of stability and margin of safety that the two front wheels give has to be experienced to be believed, especially on Johannesburg roads with their potholes and sudden patches of gravel or sand right on the cornering line. What would have a two-wheeler on its side in a flash merely causes the Fuoco to slide wide before finding grip again.
It’s a sensation that takes some getting used to but once you learn to trust it, it’s quite amazing what you can get away with. The front suspension layout that allows the bike to lean and the wheels to tilt in a corner is solidly engineered and very clever and also very heavy. But it is this solidity that gives yet more feeling of security as the bike is very stable and feels really planted on the road with none of the skittishness than can affect small-wheeled machines.
Standing beside the bike, you realise that it is a big machine – very long and, with the front layout, quite bulky looking. But, once on board, it feels no bigger than a traditional scooter. You sit well forward and have no view of the front wheels. It’s only when you look behind you that you realise there is a lot of bike following you around.
That doesn’t mean it feels unwieldy or can’t get through gaps in traffic; despite having two wheels up front, the bodywork is the widest part of the bike and is actually little wider than, say, a Vespa.
Despite displacing 500cc, it’s not quite the rocket you would expect. There is a lot of weight to lug around and this definitely has a negative effect on performance. After market exhausts and transmission parts from Malossi (imported by Vespa Sandton, who import the Gilera) can change all this but why couldn’t Gilera give the bike a bit more zip in the first place?
We are not talking anything dangerous here; it certainly lifts up its skirts and gets going fairly sharpish if you are one up and on the level, but try it two up, uphill and things are not quite so rosy; it is almost as if Gilera have thought that giving customers three wheels was enough so we’d better not frighten them with too much power. Unfortunately they have gone a bit too far in the other direction.
Maybe I am being hyper critical here. The most a bike such as this will ever do is scoot around town, to work and back. For that type of riding there is sufficient performance.
The Fuoco has a party piece which can leave bystanders bemused. There is a small switch on the right handlebar that will lock the pivot mechanism so, as you come to a stop, you can give this a flick and keep your feet up without falling over. Twisting the throttle to move off automatically disengages the lock and you are back to fully articulated. Another clever safety feature ensures that blipping the throttle with the suspension lock on but with no rider aboard means the bike won’t shoot off into the distance; a micro-switch under the seat, activated by the rider’s weight sees to that.
Is this the future of small-wheeled motorcycling? There are certainly reasons to recommend it but price may not be one of them. At R108,000 it  isn’t cheap and I’m not convinced that the benefits of its novel layout are significant enough to place it at the top of a shopping list that could include many brand new full-sized bikes or dozens of used models.
But, if you are in the market for a high-end scooter which is a doddle to ride and has the marginal benefit of being something unusual, this could be the bike for you. 

This Week I Have Been Mostly Riding.....

2011 Kawasaki ZX10R

If I'm still alive by the end of it, I'll tell you all about it

Monday, 24 October 2011

Marco Simoncelli

It is an oft cited justification that those who the Gods favour they take young. Marco Simoncelli had the appearance of the man most likely to succeed the current trio of top aces in the MotoGP world; Stoner, Pedrosa and Lorenzo. He was the heir apparent to the rock and roll legacy that Valentino Rossi has surely surrendered.
The second lap of the Malaysian GP saw the type of incident that has been mercifully absent from racing in recent memory and a young racer of immense talent and promise has been taken from us.
I’m not going to wax lyrical about how he was destined to be world champion because no-one can predict the future and how many young talents have been shackled with that pressure only to fall foul of circumstance and never be in a position to fulfil their imposed (or supposed) destiny.
But it was clear that Simoncelli was destined for something, be it absolute greatness or glorious failure. No way was he going to fade out unnoticed.  
Coming a bare week after the death of Dan Wheldon in America, the spotlight has once again been thrust upon motorsport for all the wrong reasons. Death or accident is never far away in motorsport and yet the prevailing sentiment is one of forgetfulness since the last time it happened. The show must go on, as the saying goes and whilst this has been proven time after time, in this day and age it continues to sound more and more callous.
What we do feel, in among all the hysteria, however, is nothing but clichés. Whilst we, the observers, sit in our armchairs and watch these gladiators defy gravity, life and death, it is easy to be lulled into a stupor of ignorance. We can watch someone jump off a building or out of a plane or take a corner at impossible angles and speed from the comfort of our own armchairs and completely remove ourselves from the reality involved.
Such is the power of television that we reduce the risks taken by our heroes to mere entertainment on our behalf, not understanding that these men and women are doing it from a belief more intense and inseparable from their beings than we would ever understand; the fact of entertainment does not even come into it for them. It is still a danger sport in which they participate but, to a man, the skill of doing something incredible and virtually unique transcends any understanding of what it might mean to a spectator or how it might affect them in the event of a crash.  
As always it was a freak accident that has no bearing on conceivable risk prevention scenarios. Nothing could have been done to prevent an accident that, in its detail, has happened a hundred times before but, because of the infinitesimal selections of chance, this time ended in tragedy.
The question will always be asked; when will it stop? And the answer is; never. Not whilst there are young men and women who will choose to risk their lives doing something they love. Will they ban mountaineering? Will they ban cross-ocean yachting? Of course they won’t.
And nor should they ban racing. Who are we, in this increasingly nanny-state world to dictate that a person shouldn’t do something because the outcome might upset our sensibilities or simply upset us? What more glorious ending can there be that someone died doing something they absolutely loved, understanding all the time the risks they were taking and the statistics that fluttered in the wind behind them like a flag.
Marco Simoncelli will be mourned and then will quietly fade into distant memory. I will defend his right to die as he wanted and for the racing to continue, as it has on hundreds, if not thousands of occasions previously, because, corny as it may be to say, he would have wanted it to be that way. Would he have refused to race on if it had been one of his companions? Of course he wouldn’t and that is why we must not mourn his death but celebrate his life.
It seems appropriate to quote the great Tazio Nuvolari at this point. Asked by an ignorant journalist how he got into a racing car time after time when it might mean his death, he simply replied; ‘tell me, do you think you might die, an old man, in your bed? Well then, how do you find the courage to climb into that bed every night?’ In every life, there is the risk of premature death. Hail to those who make the most of it, no matter how it may offend some people. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

This week I am mostly riding.....

Gilera Fuoco 500i.e.

To find out why, read the report next week. 

Korean GP, Yeongam, South Korea

Sebastian Vettel won, someone came second and third, zzzzzzzzzzz

MotoGP, Philip Island, Australia

Casey Stoner won, someone else was second, zzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Triumph vs. BMW Part One

 Triumph Tiger 800XC

Larger 21-inch front wheel helps balance appearance
of the XC over its road version sibling. Test bike had Arrows
exhaust system which improved looks and sound

Right, let’s get this out of the way at the beginning. I am a Triumph man. Old or new, it makes no difference. No-one was happier when Triumphs started rolling off the production lines again and even more so when it was seen that they had modern engineering and world-class style. Here, finally was a bike to take back some of the market the Japanese had seized in the late 60’s and 70’s.
At first, four-cylinder motors rubbed shoulders with a brave triple-cylinder design; brave in that, whilst there was a great historical link to be exploited, the old triple in particular did not enjoy the greatest reliability reputation. To recall such troubled times could have been asking for more trouble.
But the fact of the matter is that this link with the past has been crucial to the success of the modern Triumph and they have made it work with modern technology and design. It seems that the bad old days, for all their problems, still held the affection of motorcycle enthusiasts who were desperate for a British resurgence.
The four-cylinder motor died simply because the triple was so popular. In an age of homogenised design, it was a breath of fresh air. And Triumph keeps on refining the concept and finding new applications for it.  The latest is in the ‘baby’ version of the Tiger, the 800 and 800 XC. It’s basically the engine from the 675cc Street Triple and Daytona but the increased capacity has beefed up the low and mid-range torque and whilst it has lost that peakiness of the smaller engine, it suits the nature of the Tiger brilliantly.
The clutch is light (cable operated) and the gearbox has a nice chunky, yet easy-engagement action and all three elements combine to make the Tiger easy to ride smoothly.
The road 800. Visually different by way of wheels
and front mudguard.
‘Baby’ it may be in engine capacity, but it is very much a big bike. The 800 is the road-only version while the XC is the adventure model. To this end there are a number of differences. Against the 800’s 19-inch cast front wheel, is a 21-inch spoked wheel. The forks are longer (by 40mm) and slightly chunkier (by 2mm) and the handlebars are also wider, higher and further back. These changes completely alter the character of the XC over the 800 and make it feel a much bigger, more grown-up bike.
They do alter the handling a little; the XC feels like it needs more input in the bends to get it round, but only by small degrees and, at the end of the day it’s an absolute hoot to ride, whilst also being stable and comfortable. The only possible gripe is that, although great for tall riders, the small screen could do with a little more adjustment upwards; at the moment, its highest setting directs the air flow right into your eyes.
The more you live with the bike, the more you notice the little details. The seat can be adjusted up (or down) by a couple of centimetres by a clever manual system under the seat and the same goes for the screen, although this would have to be a matter of trial and error as it requires undoing a couple of knurled wheels and moving the screen up or down on a ratchet; not something you can do on the move. Behind the headlight is a lever which adjusts the beam downwards if you are carrying a pillion.
Instrumentation is clear and very comprehensive with an analogue tach and digital display to its left showing speed, coolant temp, fuel gauge, range, clock, phases of the moon, etc. With a 19 litre tank, it should give a range of 250 miles (400 kms) and the bike has the comfort for that to be possible in one go.
Whether you go for the 800 or the XC is purely a matter of personal preference. Both are great road bikes, especially in an urban setting where the height and upright riding position gives a fine view over traffic. Personally I prefer the look of the XC over the 800 and that’s really what it comes down to. I have never been convinced of the off-road capability of adventure bikes unless in the hands of an expert; drop this and it would be impossible to pick up and, when you did, expensive to repair.
I know I am supposed to be objective, but stuff it. I loved the Tiger 800XC. It may not have the beauty of sixties Triumphs, but then again which modern bikes do? It also may look very much like all other bikes in its class. But the Triumph logo on the tank makes all the difference.

Triumph Tiger 800XC in its natural habitat. And people
said there were no tigers in South Africa.
Next week; The BMW F800GS tries to duff up the young upstart and keep its place as head of the playground

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Johannesburg International Motor Show Goes Green

 Go Green To Get Home

BMW goes sexy....again!
There is a perception that eco-friendly vehicles will never take as firm a hold in South Africa as in Europe or America.
Having said that, there were several interesting vehicles on show at JIMS which deserve a mention, if not completely dispel the perception. They fall into two categories; already in production and technology that could be introduced immediately but which is clothed at present in full concept-car styling.
'Captain, Captain....'
Aaaarrrggghhhh! My eyes....
The most significant model, from the first category, is the Nissan LEAF (Leading, Environmentally friendly, Affordable, Family car) which has been on sale in the US, Europe and Japan since last year. It is a full electric car with a range of between 117 and 220 kms, depending on driving conditions with a recharge taking 8 hours. There is the possibility that it could be launched here by 2013. Where it scores is that, in appearance, it’s a normal family hatchback and not some hideous gargoyle as many Green concepts are.
Talking of which, we get to the Toyota FT-EV ll. If ever there was a blob of a car which does nothing to further the cause of Green technology, this is it. Outwardly similar to the FT-EV that preceded it, the interior has now gone super funky with joystick control which looks straight out of the film of 1000 Leagues Under the Sea. Fully electric, it has a range of only 90 kms and, unless people are shrinking, not much space for the four passengers for whom seats are provided.
Nissan LEAF. The doors don't close, apparently!
As much as we like to see reality, it is the concept cars that garner the attention. The showstoppers came from Germany and America; Audi with the E-Tron concept; BMW with their snappily titled Vision Efficient Dynamics concept and Chevrolet with their simply gorgeous Miray.
Audi’s offering was the least outlandish looking, closely followed by Chevrolet, whilst the BMW was right out-there, but still an object wonderful to behold.
Woof woof!
Whilst the BMW and the Chevrolet are hybrids, with 3-cylinder diesel and 4-cylinder petrol engines respectively providing open-road power to supplement the electric motors and lithium-ion batteries, the Audi is pure electricity-powered. Before this puts you off, consider the figures; 313hp and, wait for it, 3,319lb/ft of torque!
No-one at Chevrolet was willing to commit to an introduction date, but Audi and BMW were both talking in terms of the technology, if not the actual cars shown, being in production by 2014.
If we look at the here and now, there is the ever-impressive range of Lexus hybrids utilising petrol/electric motor technology, albeit with the emphasis being on the petrol element. For those without such deep pockets, the Peugeot 107 comes with a zero emissions tax rating for their 998cc engine model.
It seems the future might be green, after all.
The Eyes have it.

You really can't fault those looks

Lexus looking important. And economical.

Now, that's sexy
The Americans have come a long way since the 'fifties.

Monday, 10 October 2011

2011 Japanese Grand Prix, Qualifying. Suzuka

Hamilton the Donkey

Hamilton was a bit downcast after his
qualifying cock-up
I love formula 1. I love the technology, the aesthetics, the history, the rivalries, the petty arguments and occasionally, the races themselves. I love the way this sport has grown from a few guys dicking around in a garage to multi-billion dollar concerns fighting over a bit of tarmac and the millions of dollars that will be theirs if they beat the next team to that bit of tarmac.
But what I love most is that, despite all of those billions of dollars, all the technology and the armies of staff all ensuring that two cars make it past the chequered flag, despite the best attempts of the overpaid drivers to deny them that opportunity, is that they can get it so spectacularly wrong sometimes.
In Saturday’s qualifying for the Japanese GP, we saw the usual suspects go into Q3 to battle it out for pole position. For once it looked as if Red Bull wouldn’t have it all their own way as the McLarens and Ferraris were going very well. The Mercedes of Schumacher was up there in the mix as was Kobayashi , shining in his home race.
Tyres were always going to be an issue, in that there weren’t enough allocated to each team for the whole weekend to permit unlimited running, and three drivers elected not to go out at all in Q3, preferring to save one more set for the race. But the Top 6 all left it to the last minute to head out onto track for one last fling. Hamilton was sitting on provisional pole after setting fastest time in Q2 and many saw him as most likely to spoil the Red Bull party.
In line astern the two Red Bulls, two Ferraris, two McLarens and one Mercedes left the pits. Kobayashi had gone out right at the beginning of Q3, not intending to do a full flying lap but simply set sector times which would automatically place him ahead of any drivers who did not venture out onto the track.
So the fun and games began. Everyone was desperate to try and get a bit of a gap to the driver in front so their lap wouldn’t be compromised. Hamilton slowed to allow Button to get away. In turn Webber and Schumacher were forced to back off and risked missing the cut off time for starting the lap. So Webber decided to pass Hamilton on one side approaching the final chicane whilst Schumacher passed on the other side.
Hamilton, maybe not quite the sharpest tool in the box, was taken by surprise by this and, coupled with his inability to time himself so he got to the start/finish line in time, meant that he failed to put in a final flying lap. Not only that, but Schumacher also missed the cut after running off track at the chicane to pass Hamilton.
So it was that Vettel gratefully accepted a pole position that had been thrown away by Hamilton. It was a fantastic piece of bungling by a driver who increasingly looks disconcerted by having a team mate who is actually able to think whilst simultaneously driving a car. Button is slowly taking the role of team leader away from Hamilton and it would be no surprise to see Button go into next year with the momentum to challenge for the championship whilst Hamilton cocks around in 5th or 6th position in the race to ensure his proximity to nemesis Felipe Massa in his evil red Ferrari.  
However, we all know how things can turn around in a week in F1, so no doubt I’ll have to eat my words as Hamilton goes on to drive the race of his life in Korea whilst Button manages to pull into every garage in the pit lane except his own! Oh, hang on; he did that a while back…

Not your everyday road sign....

Thursday, 6 October 2011

This Week I Have Been Mostly Riding.....

Honda VFR 800 Crossrunner
Hmmm.Nice exhaust!

We have entered an age in motorcycle styling where the set-square is the stylist’s favourite tool; you can see them looking at the wheels in a disapproving sort of way. All this styling is very cutting edge and ‘modern’ I suppose, but it wasn’t all that long ago that wind-cheating shapes were rounded and swoopy. And, frankly I preferred them that way.
But I am not going to change anything with my carping so on to this week’s test. Honda is no stranger to the multi-purpose market – the Varadero is still current as is, incredibly, the Transalp - after a thousand-year production run - but, true to Honda’s motto of ‘the more the better’ they have introduced the VFR800 Crossrunner.
Quite why every manufacturer, apart from BMW maybe, needs a snappy name that implies exactly the sort of riding you wouldn’t want to do on these bikes (and that in all likelihood won’t be done on them) is something that I have not quite worked out yet. But the Crossrunner it is.
So, is it any good? Let’s face it, no new bike is ever going to be diabolically bad so it really all comes down to whether you are a Honda fan or you simply appreciate the aesthetics.
Generally, this type of bike is very pleasing to the eye in a macho sort of way and the Honda is no exception, despite the angularity. What does worry me is the move to stupendously hideous and gargantuan silencers that are making their way onto factory-fresh bikes. Have the after-market suppliers made a pact with the factories to boost sales of slinky slip-on canisters?

Good and chunky....shame about the wheels!
Where the Crossrunner scores is in its touring ability. A large (21.5 litre) tank gives a range of over 420kms and, whilst this sort of distance-capability usually causes one to reach for the arse-soothing pillow, Honda have got the riding position just right and it remains comfortable. The V4 engine is sweet and Honda has smoothed out the power delivery without losing any of the performance and the chassis and suspension throw up no nasty surprises.
It is a bit of a porker, at nearly 240kgs and this weight, coupled with the 17-inch front wheel means that it is pointless trying to take it off-road any further than up the pavement in Sandton. But for general road work it is a useful tool, the tall stance and upright riding position making for good visibility in city riding. The exhaust, for all its ugliness, gives a lovely sound to the V4 unit that encourages right wrist movement!
Prices are R109,999 for the ‘Sports’ model (?) and R114,999 for the Touring. A two year warranty is included in the price.

Speed vs. Revenue

Speed 3 - The Final Insult

It’s very interesting that, just at the moment the South African government are proposing to reduce speed limits on the highways to reduce the road death levels, the UK government is debating whether to raise their motorway speed limits from 70mph to 80mph (117km/h to 133 km/h).
This just brings into sharp focus the utter stupidity of those in charge of our roads and the legislation that governs them. What baffles me is that they seem to be completely ignorant of the basic facts that even the most uninterested citizen acknowledges to be common sense.
Speed in itself does not kill. Speed in the wrong place kills. Atrocious levels of driving skill kills. Ignorance and arrogance on the roads kill. Corruption in testing stations and penny-pinching by private and commercial owners kills.
But to claim that lowering the highway speed limit by 20kmh will make any difference to the road death toll is pathetic. A bus or taxi full to the brim but with defective brakes or shock absorbers will have an appalling accident whether it is travelling at 120km/h or 80km/h. When there is that much metal and that much momentum, it is never going to be a mere bumper bashing. And it is these vehicles that are responsible for the greater proportion of road deaths.
 It is yet another example of the government side-stepping the issue of the condition of the majority of vehicles involved in the crashes in the first place. It is almost a case of; we can’t start pulling all the un-roadworthy vehicles off the road or imposing stringent and enforced levels of roadworthy-ness because half the vehicles on the roads would disappear and the larger proportion of the population will have no transport at all. So let’s rather lower the bar to their vehicle’s level and everything will be alright.
How many times have you been in traffic on a highway behind an old scrap heap of a car with, for example, absolutely no lights whatsoever – and I don’t mean just not working, but physically no light unit or ones that are absolutely smashed – or moving crab-like along the road whilst travelling forward and in the lane next to you is a police car with unrestricted view of the – patently – un-roadworthy vehicle. Does the policeman pull him over and with a look of disbelief tell him to walk home as his car is going to be towed to the scrap heap?
No, he ignores it and instead pulls over Mr Wealthy in his Range Rover. Before you accuse me of exaggeration, I actually saw this happen on the M1 near the Corlett Drive exit. I am not about to get into the whole dung heap argument of police bribery and corruption but I think the principle is the same; penalise the ones who can afford it and leave the rest of them to endanger lives.
The situation is almost becoming farcical; we will be told to travel slower on highways that our tax money paid for to be improved which we now have to pay to use! But still the risk of death will be there because the mobile death-traps will be all around us.
Talk about addressing the wrong issue. But what do we, the motorists, do? Nothing! We sit and take it and complain and take some more and still complain and continue to get shafted. Will we do anything about it? Not a chance. That would involve standing up to be counted and I’m afraid modern man is just too much of a wimp to do that.
So the powers that be will carry on and try to introduce legislation that will only serve to fill their coffers, none of which money will find its way back into the road system that generated it in the first place. One can only hope that sense will prevail, but given our beloved leaders priorities, I’m not so sure that will be possible.