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 clich├ęs. 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.

1957 German Grand Prix

Fangio’s Master Class

Michael Turner's painting shows us the moment when Fangio, half
on the verge, scrabbled past Collins and set off in pursuit of Hawthorne. 

 Formula One in the fifties belonged to one man; Juan Manuel Fangio. Five World Championships and victory in nearly 50% of the Grands Prix he entered – 24 out of 51 – ensured that he remained the man to beat; he was the yardstick by which every other driver on the grid was - and, to some extent, still is - measured. Without exception he is on every ‘Greatest Drivers of All Time’ list, invariably at number one.
He was a sportsman of impeccable integrity and honour. Was it by chance that both Kling and Moss won their home Grand Prix whilst team mates to the great man, in seasons where he had the measure of them both and more? And if he did gift the races to his team-mates, he was humble enough never to admit it, merely saying that the best man won on the day.
But mostly, he was an artist. His driving was an object lesson in car control and speed; always precise; always clean but giving no quarter in a fight.  For 1955, Stirling Moss, having proved his worth in a private Maserati 250F in ’54, was invited to partner Fangio in the Mercedes team and was happy to follow in the master’s wheel tracks; so closely did Moss follow the Maestro in Grands Prix that they were dubbed ‘the train.’
This, understandably, worried the Mercedes team management; if Fangio were to make a mistake and crash, there was no possible way Moss could avoid him and both cars could be lost, let alone both drivers. Moss placated his employers with the devastating logic; ‘Juan Manuel simply does not make mistakes.’
It was Fangio’s willingness to have a team-mate who was capable of beating him that underlined his greatness. For Moss was no second string driver and had the edge over Fangio in Sports Cars as much as Fangio was the undisputed master in open wheelers.
But any edge you had over Fangio was always a tenuous thread. Whilst  Moss’ victory in the 1955 Mille Miglia has passed into motor-racing folklore - he drove the Mercedes 300SLR to victory in record time with Denis Jenkinson by his side reading pace-notes to ease the strain on Moss of remembering 1000 miles of public roads - it is often forgotten that Fangio came second in that race driving solo! At the flag, and after suffering from fuel injection problems, he was only 32 minutes behind after ten hours!
Throughout Fangio’s F1 career, he drove for the Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Lancia, Mercedes and Maserati teams, winning championships in ’51, ’54, ’55, ’56 and ’57. If we are to be precise, however, the Lancia he drove to the 1957 Championship was badged Lancia-Ferrari, as Lancia, finding the cost of competing in Formula 1 simply too expensive, had made a gift of their entire racing team to Ferrari who ran the modified cars as his own.
For 1957, his last full season of racing, Fangio was driving for Maserati, who were fielding the glorious 250F. Whilst the Mercedes had been Teutonic and effective, but never beautiful in the traditional sense and the Lancia-Ferrari twitchy and difficult, the Maserati, on the other hand, was pure Italian artistry, in both appearance and manners on the race track and no less effective for all that. Fangio loved the car; ‘Aye…the 250F. Not very powerful, I recall, but beautifully balanced. A lovely car to drive. I felt I could do anything with it.’
The mighty, daunting, Nurburgring was the setting for the 1957 German Grand Prix. Fangio went into the race needing a win to clinch his fifth World Driver’s Championship. Against him were the Ferrari’s of Hawthorn, Collins, Musso and von Trips, the Vanwalls of Moss, Brooks and Lewis Evans and his own team mates Behra and Schell. The fact of the matter was that the Maserati was no match for his rival’s cars, but they didn’t have Fangio at the wheel.
He doesn't really look as if he's trying, but by the end of the
race he will have knocked 26 seconds of his lap record of the
previous year!
Ever the tactician, Fangio decided to start on half-tanks, to allow himself to build enough of a lead so he could stop at half distance to refuel and maintain the lead.
In those days, as it remains today, the Nurburgring was 14 miles long and comprised 170-odd corners. Bear in mind, however, that there existed none of the Armco protection or run-off areas that blight circuits – even the Nurburgring itself - of the modern era. If you were lucky, there was a hedge lining the track to stop you if the car broke or you made a mistake. If you weren’t lucky, there was a 50 metre drop behind the hedge!
In Fangio’s time, a lap took around 9 minutes 40 seconds, and there were 22 of them for the race. If that seems slow by today’s standard where ‘ordinary’ road cars are lapping sub 7 minutes 30 seconds then consider the technology extant in those times; drum brakes, flexible chassis, super-skinny, rock hard tyres, rudimentary suspension, no seat-belts and a tortoise shell for a helmet. Ask any current GP ‘Superstar’ to emulate the feats of their predecessors and they will look at you as if you were mad.
But I digress. On the third lap, Fangio took the lead from Hawthorn and started to pull away. By lap ten, he had a lead of 30 seconds. On lap twelve he stopped for fuel and tyres, the plan working perfectly.  
Then; disaster! The pit stop was desperately slow and Fangio lost not only his 30 second lead but a further 20 seconds to Hawthorn and Collins. Ten laps remained.
Collins, with no clutch left, was powerless to resist
Fangio's pressure
He set off in pursuit and for three laps nothing happened - the gap to the leaders remained the same. Then the timekeepers started to double-check their stopwatches; Fangio was lapping a full 15 seconds under the old lap record, set the previous year, by himself, of course! This was impossible! But that was the magic of Fangio; he made the impossible happen occasionally.
By lap 19, the gap was 13 seconds, by the end of lap 20 he was right with the Ferraris. Collins, with his clutch gone, could do nothing to hold the ‘old man’ at bay and, in a shower of stones kicked up from the verge by his rear tyres, Fangio got past in a long, perfectly controlled slide. Hawthorn gave it his all, but could not prevent the inevitable; it was the quiet Argentine at his most ruthless.
At the flag, Fangio was 4 seconds ahead. He had driven as no man had driven before and you could see it in his face as he pulled into the pits to receive the plaudits. He later admitted that he never wanted to drive that hard ever again; he admitted to taking every corner a gear higher than he had done in practice and qualifying.
There was simply nothing Hawthorne could do to keep
Fangio at bay; he was passed with 3 laps to go. 
Only he could know what risks he took out on the track in his pursuit of the Ferraris and the thought of it scared him silly!
Many years later in an interview, he said, ‘Even now….I feel fear when I think of that race. Only I knew what I had done, the chances I had taken.’
His fastest lap for the race was 9 minutes 17 seconds. In modern Formula 1 we are used to a lap time decrease year on year of maybe a second, if we are lucky. Fangio’s improvement of his previous year’s fastest lap was a staggering 26 seconds, in a car which had barely changed during the same period.  
It was to be his last Grand Prix victory; he would retire, reputation intact, after the French Grand Prix at Rheims the following year.
He was gone but would never be forgotten.

Great Bikes?

No 1. The MGC, France, 1935

MGC N3BR. 1932. 250cc

We take aluminium very much for granted these days and cast aluminum components of a motorbike chassis are nothing unusual; any number of bikes have them. But it was not always so.
Aluminium was widely adopted in industry – particularly by motor and motorcycle manufacturers - after WW1 for its light weight, good heat conductivity and shine. However, it lacks, especially in cast form, steel’s ability to resist vibration fatigue. It would take years of foundry progress before cast aluminium could be widely used in motorbike chassis and an equally long time before engine refinement reduced vibration to an acceptable level to make use of the material a viable proposition.
The principal casting comprising the tank, top frame member and headstock.
Marcel Guiguet was a French motorcycle dealer who became obsessed with the idea of casting as a single piece many of the previously separate structural and functional frame components of a motorcycle. His idea was to enclose the engine between an upper member comprising the tank, headstock and chassis beam and lower member which comprised the oil tank and the lower frame structure extending back to the rear wheel, the two joined by vertical aluminium struts.
Showing the various pieces of the puzzle. As well as
 the main tank structure, all other components were
also cast from aluminium. 
The early castings were porous and prone to cracking from shrinkage – no-one had attempted large hollow, thin-walled castings before. His material of choice was a high silicone alloy called Alpax, and he eventually cured the porosity with heat treatment and drying oils. The parts were still prone to cracking in use, however and, even when current, the survival rate of machines was low; the skill to weld aluminium successfully without distorting the structure simply did not exist in the workshops of the day.
Production began in 1929, the machine called the MGC – Marcel Guiguet & Co.
Proprietary and familiar engines - mainly the British JAP 500c single – were used so at the 1928 Paris Salon all eyes were on the revolutionary chassis.  
Nothing like it had been seen before and it generated great interest but the bike was a financial flop – it was simply too expensive to produce and only around 200 were made and that was the end of MGC.

Exceptionally narrow frontal aspect
He had started something, though. But the world had to wait more than 50 years for the MGC frame concept to become viable through increased knowledge and techniques with aluminium and it was the 1985 Suzuki GSX R 750 that heralded the true dawn of the age of extruded and cast aluminium beam-framed bikes. 

This article first appeared in www.iauto.co.za

Bloodhound SSC - To 1000mph and Beyond

Land Speed Record Comes To Town

Computer generated image of the Bloodhound SSC.
It is very possible that the last roll of the Land Speed Record dice is to happen in our lifetime. Once the Bloodhound SSC project has reached (or not, as the case may be) its target of 1000mph it is unlikely that the laws of physics will permit any further increases. Not only that, but after that figure has been reached, what would be the next meaningful and, more importantly, achievable milestone? Surely an incremental advance, such as happened in the thirties, would hold little appeal for backers and public alike.

Richard Noble and Andy Green have annexed the record for the last 28 years, first with Noble’s 633mph and later with Andy Green’s breaking of the sound barrier on land at 763mph. In between those attempts were pretenders to the crown; nor were they without serious credentials. Names such as Breedlove, McGlashan and McLaren International all provided the necessary spur to Noble and his team to reach for the sound barrier. That they succeeded again where the others failed was testament to the British team’s tenacity and skill.

Aussie Invader 5R
Now, Bloodhound is set to push the record out of reach for all time; if it can get there first, that is. Once again the global contenders are assembling for this one last desperate attempt at the ultimate motoring goal. From Australia there is the indefatigable Roscoe McGlashan and the Aussie Invader 5R and from America is the American Eagle. With the nature of the challenge comes immense danger as new regions of speed are explored. Because of this, no-one is going to go straight out and try for 1000mph. Each of the teams will build up to their maximum in a series of carefully planned runs over a couple of years.

The North American Eagle. 
Thus we should see a return to the golden eras of record breaking when the record shuttled back and forth between two or more players over a short period of time; Campbell and Segrave; Cobb and Eyston; Breedlove, Arfons and Gabelich.

Critics of the LSR have been many through the years, questioning the point of the exercise. Many are the times when the answer has been, like Everest; because it’s there to be beaten. But this time, it is not enough to do it because it is there. Record breaking costs huge money and that money doesn’t grow on trees. Sponsors have to invest in possibly the most uncertain project of all; success is not guaranteed and sponsors need to see a return on their investment. Failure does not necessarily constitute that return.

So this time Noble has addressed a serious issue. There is possibly not a country in the world that is lacking in essential skills in its workforce. His last two record attempts have highlighted the dire need for engineering expertise to be nurtured and developed. With Bloodhound, he has called it an Engineering Adventure and made the bedrock of the project to involve schools, colleges and universities in an attempt to share the excitement and foster an interest in engineering at grass-roots level. This way companies can see the real, long-term benefit of supporting the project.

It is possible, however, in an age obsessed and satiated with speed, that the excitement and wonder generated by such a feat of engineering may prompt stifled yawns among the very people it is hoped will be inspired.
But the fact remains that the margin by which Bloodhound will surpass even the most astoundingly fast road car of modern times is still the same margin that Segrave or Campbell surpassed performance cars of their era. Today, a Bugatti Veyron will travel faster with an 8-litre engine than Malcolm Campbell managed in 1931with a 26.9-litre engine and he didn’t get to run to the shops in his car! But Campbell’s 246mph was just as out-of-this-world to motorists of his day, when even 70mph in a road car was an achievement.

So why should we in South Africa get excited? Because this (potentially) last chapter in a century-plus-long obsession with ultimate speed is to happen right here on South African soil. Well, desert actually; a remote part of the Northern Cape called Hakskeen Pan has been selected as the prime location by the Bloodhound team. Nearly 80 years after Malcolm Campbell chose Verneuk Pan as the venue for a record attempt, South Africa is once again on the LSR map. And this one is going to be the daddy of them all. 

This Week I Have Been Mostly Driving...


With the introduction of the XF 2.2 Diesel Jaguar might want to appear to be listening to the environmental lobby and certainly they make a big deal of the 5.5l/100km consumption, as indeed they should for this class of car, but the reality is that the move is more in response to the money men at Tata who, of course, now hold the purse strings at Jaguar.
Currently with no model in the sub-R500k bracket, Jaguar is losing sales to direct competitors Audi and BMW. To compete, they have to abandon one of their core attributes and stoop ever lower in the performance stakes to keep up with the Joneses. Or the Schmidts, in this case.  
So does it work? Well, yes and no. Whilst acknowledging the reasoning behind why the XF2.2 exists I can’t help feeling that Jaguar are building down to a market rather than up to a standard that has traditionally been high.
Having gone to great lengths in recent years to shed the ‘old man’s car’ image they have now gone out of their way to build another. The performance will not frighten anyone over the age of 60 and the running costs will appeal to their sense of thrift.
Despite the 140kw and 450nm the XF2.2 feels sluggish off the line. What is of more concern is the lack of in-gear overtaking punch which is surprising for a turbo diesel. It is possibly this lack of oomph that will backfire for Jaguar. Hoping to attract a younger, less wealthy buyer will not alter the fact that that buyer goes for Jaguar for the performance image as much as the physical appearance.
The absolute refinement of engine, drivetrain and chassis might contribute to the disappointment in the performance. If there is one area where Jaguar has consistently excelled and continues to do so, it is in isolating the occupants from engine noise and general vibration. There is simply no indication from inside the car that you are in a diesel or that you might be travelling rapidly, no matter how long it took you to get there.

100km/h comes up in 8.5 seconds, but the manner it achieves this is so devoid of any fuss or drama, or noise for that matter, that it is easy to underestimate your road speed. Get your heart racing it will not, however, and, if you use the 8-speed auto ‘box to the redline in every gear in order to wring some performance out of it, you won’t see the consumption figures Jaguar claim. Still, less than 10l/100km over 300 hard-driven kilometres is nothing to be sniffed at.
Whatever the drop-off in performance from the 2.2 diesel, what is not diminished is the cachet of owning a Jaguar and the fact that you have the best looking sedan on the road, which subtle styling manipulations have further enhanced for the 2012 model year. In short these equate to new styling forward of the A-pillar, with new, sleeker headlights which give the car a meaner look, not entirely dissimilar to the A4 Audi. But driving a Jaguar on the road gives you a feeling that no A4, or its direct rival, the A6, could ever give. It might not be perfect in this engine guise but at the end of every journey you can still step out of it and look back and wonder at its beauty.
Jaguar need to attack different markets in order to ensure survival. However, it will take a mind-shift in the eyes of potential customers to accept the new frugal face of Jaguar. And the change in perception will not limit itself solely to economy. In the pipeline are new vehicles targeting new (for Jaguar) market sectors. First off, there is a convertible sports car to compete with the Mercedes SLK and BMW Z4, followed by a medium-sized sedan to go head-to-head with the BMW 3-Series and A4 Audi. Both will be brave gambles, taking on as they will be the established market leaders, but if anyone can do it, Jaguar can.

That's the gear you're in, not the track that's playing
on the CD!

1969 Le Mans 24 Hours

A Walk in the Park

Let’s face it; 24-hour races can be very dull! Yet, at the end of this year’s running of the Le Mans 24 hours, we watched the first and second placed cars fighting it out right to the line, a mere 13 seconds separating them at the flag. But there has been a closer, more exciting finish.
The Porsche 917. Brand new and VERY scary. In this early form it
wanted to fly and claimed the life of privateer John Woolfe on the
first lap. This is Vic Elford who led the race for many hours before being forced
out with mechanical problems
The late sixties were golden years for sports car racing. Ford, stung by Ferrari’s last minute refusal to sell his company, decided to beat him at his own game and developed the GT40 from the British Lola GT concept and, after a couple of false starts, won the race in ’66, ’67 and ’68, soundly beating Ferrari each time.
By 1969 the GT40 was becoming a bit long in the tooth - albeit a still healthy tooth - and Porsche were snapping at Ford’s heels. Long successful in endurance racing, Porsche had nonetheless failed to win Le Mans outright and they put into effect a plan to do just that. Thus was born the awesome 917, which in its early long-tailed form was as lethal as it was blindingly fast. It was still very new, however, so Porsche hedged their bets by entering several of their older, eight-cylinder 908s.  
The start and Ickx walks nonchalantly across the track to his waiting
GT40, the rest of the pack already at their cars
The traditional Le Mans run-and-jump start was still in use in ’69. Safety in motor racing was starting to be an issue in the late sixties and seat belts were a new development; opinions about them were divided and many drivers considered it a waste of valuable seconds to do them up before moving off, if they were fitted at all.
As the flag dropped, the drivers sprinted across the track to their waiting cars. All except Jacky Ickx. As a protest against the regulations he strolled casually across the track, climbed into his GT40 and fastened his seat belts before he got going, dead last.

The first Porsche to retire was the 908 of Siffert/Redman with gearbox trouble
During qualifying the Porches had been devastatingly quick, pulverising the lap record, despite speed-limiting changes to the track since the previous year. In the race it was the same story; the Porsches streaked away at the front, running 1, 2, 3; the 917 of Elford and Attwood leading. The Fords rumbled around behind them waiting for the Porsches to break – not that they broke very often. But this time was different.
At the end of 24 hours' racing, this is what it came down to
By 7am Ickx was up to third, 5 laps down on the leading 917. By 9am, the leading Porsche was into the pits for attention to the front end but still had a 4-lap cushion. 40 minutes later it came in again, this time for attention to the back end and was sent out still in the lead but now sounding rough. The Fords were waiting to pounce.
With four hours to go there was but one Porsche left – all the others out with mechanical trouble, including the leading 917. The 3-litre 908 of Hans Herrmann was second behind the 5-litre Ford of Ickx/Oliver! But, if it was thought that the race was over, with cars needing to be nursed to the finish, then it was clear the drivers hadn’t read the script!

For the next three and a half hours, the leading Ford and Porsche went at it as if they were at the beginning of a Grand Prix and not at the end of a gruelling 24-hour, car-breaking race. As one car pitted for fuel and tyres, the other would take the lead, only to lose it again as it too, pitted.
Into the last hour they raced, never starting a new lap with the same car leading. It was hammer and tongs stuff, Porsche desperate to win for the first time, Ford trying for one last victory for its aging battleaxe. The Porsche was down on power, the Ford having to watch its fuel.
It still wasn’t settled as they entered the last lap; the two drivers swapping the lead at least twice as they thundered round to the finish line. On the pit straight, necks craned to see who would emerge out of the final chicane first. It was Ickx and he crossed the line 20 metres ahead of Herrmann in the Porsche. After 5,000kms of racing!
For Ford it was the end of an era, for Porsche it was just the beginning.

To the victor the spoils

Herrmann can only sit and ponder what might
have been, alone as the winners celebrate

This article first appeared in www.iauto.co.za online magazine