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.