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  • Politics is F1′s way to dusty death.

    April 27, 2012 @ 12:09 pm | by Neil Briscoe

    Sebastian Vettel won in Bahrain. Formula One most assuredly lost

    I must admit, as a Formula One fan I hung my head in shame as the farcical mess of the Bahrain Grand Prix unfolded. To see the glitzy, glamourous F1 paddock sweeping into a country wracked by religious and social divides was the height of crassness, the low of dignity and the absence of solidarity. When sport and money become too closely intertwined, the results are never edifying. When those two cosy up to politics, then outright disgust is never far away.

    I have been a F1 fan since I was old enough to point at a TV and express delight at the flashing images of cars bedecked with tobacco company logos flashing past. Incidentally I’m also a life-long anti-smoking advocate, so that just goes to show that I’ve always had a tangled relationship with the sport I love.

    For years, Formula One was a slightly shonky affair. In the 1950s, it was dominated by the grandee factory teams of Mercedes, Maserati, Vanwall and, of course, Ferrari. But when the rear-engined revolution came along in the 1960s, it was the small British teams of Cooper, BRM, McLaren and most especially Lotus that held sway.

    Grand Prix events were always glamorous (especially those at Monza or Monaco) but the sport was still effectively an amateur one. Drivers could not afford an off-season break or even a rest between F1 events. Weekends without Grand Prix were spent racing in Sportscars, CanAm, F2 and even Touring Car events. Not (just) for the thrill, but to earn start, finish and prize money. And then along came Bernie.

    Bernard Charles Ecclestone was a former second hand car dealer and a manager to drivers Stewart Lewis Evans and Jochen Rindt. Bernie eventually became a major F1 player by buying the Brabham F1 team from its eponymous owner, 1959 and 1960 World Champion Jack Brabham. Attracting blue-chip sponsors like Parmalat and Martini and drivers like John Watson and Niki Lauda, Bernie took Brabham from the midfield all the way to double world championship wins with BWM engines and Brazilian Nelson Piquet driving in 1981 and 1983.

    All the while, Bernie was becoming F1’s joint shop steward and organiser. It was he who pulled the independent, mostly British teams together to take a stand against the well-financed factory squads of Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo. The ensuing war threatened to tear F1 asunder, but Bernie’s canny back-channel dealing brought (relative) peace and better organisation. F1 was making its giant leap into professionalism and Bernie held the key to opening the money trap-door; TV rights.

    Until the early 1980s, F1 was only shown fitfully on television. But once the coverage began to ramp up, Bernie was smart enough to start buying up the rights. The teams began to get rich, and Bernie began to get richer.

    But thanks to a convoluted series of deals in the 1990s, he sold the rights to (eventually) a company called CVC Capital Holdings. He, effectively, now works for CVC to ensure the best possible return on their multi-billion purchase and that is how we ended up having a race in the midst of civil unrest, in a location that most of the teams didn’t want to go to, on a track ill-suited to dramatic racing. Why? Money.

    I spoke to F1 journalist Tony Dodgins, hoping to find some chink in the money armour, some  better more noble reason for holding a race in Bahrain at a time when its citizens are so disillusioned with their ruling princes that they are in open revolt.

    “It is the money! The Bahrainis are believed to pay around $40 million for the race, one of the higher sanctioning fees [the fee that Bernie charges each event just so that it can be held]. On top of that, McLaren is 50 per cent-owned by the Mumtalakat Holding Company, an investment company owned by the Kingdom of Bahrain, and Aabar (an Abu Dhabi investment company) owns 40 per cent of Mercedes GP, so races in the region are viewed as important.”

    According to Finian Cunningham, Middle East and Africa Correspondent for the Global Research think-tank in Canada “there is the web of personal relationships between the Formula One fraternity and the Al Khalifa royal family.

    “The current president of the FIA, Jean Todt, was elected in 2009 with the help of Bahraini royal Shaikh Abdullah Bin Isa Al Khalifa (brother of the king) who is the head of the Automobile Federation of Bahrain,” he says.

    “Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who is the chief executive of the Bahrain International Circuit, is a shareholder in the ART Grand Prix team owned by Nicolas Todt, the son of Jean Todt. Crown Prince Salman is also a close friend of Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One supremo.

    “Indeed, when Ecclestone was quoted recently in the media about the race going to Bahrain he said somewhat absurdly: “All the teams are happy to be there. There’s nothing happening. I know people who live there and it’s all very quiet and peaceful.” And he went on to mention  that one of his sources for information on what is happening in Bahrain is Crown Prince Salman.

    Bernie Ecclestone’s a hard-nosed business man who has pulled himself up from being a back-street second hand car dealer to one of the richest men in the world.

    Along the way he has taken the sport I love most from being mostly ignored by the media and the public at large to being a 20-race-a-year circus with wall-to-wall TV and internet coverage.

    Not only that, but he is significantly responsible for the changes made to safety in the late seventies and through the eighties that saw driver deaths in F1 drop from literally one a month in 1970 to fewer than one in a decade. And he’s human too, dropping out of motor racing altogether for a time when his friend, Stewart Lewis-Evans died succumbing to terrible burns after crashing at the 1958 Morocco Grand Prix.

    But the course Ecclestone has set F1 on now is leading it to disaster. More and more of the classic F1 events, the ones that take place at the great and memorable circuits, where real wheel-to-wheel racing is still possible are being lost because Middle Eastern and Asian countries are willing to stump up massive payments, and build purpose-made bland autodromes, for the prestige of having a Grand Prix.

    The German Grand Prix is a shadow of its former self, the Portuguese Grand Prix is gone altogether, the US Grand Prix, once shared between the equally fabulous Long Beach street circuit in California and the beautiful Watkins Glen in upstate New York, is still vacillating between unsuitable tracks and locations, unable to find a home.

    If F1 continues its relentless move eastward, it will die a slow agonising death. Whatever about chasing the money for hosting fees, F1’s heartland is in Europe, Japan and the east and west coasts of the US. PR (and moral) disasters like Bahrain will drive sponsors away while dreary race tracks like Abu Dhabi and South Korea will cause viewers to change channels, putting more sponsors off.

    And the ridiculous attitude displayed by both drivers and teams at Bahrain will alienate even dedicated fans like me. When team bosses and drivers attempted to bat away the ‘should we be here’ questions by saying that they wanted to concentrate on racing, not politics, they were insulting our intelligence. Because in the Bernie era, racing has passed through finance to become politics. The sooner it changes back, the better for everyone.

    (By the way, kudos to those who spotted that the reference in the headline is not to the original quote from Macbeth but from the Alastair MacLean book title. Corny old stuff but a cracking read all the same.)

  • Behind the scenes at Fiat design

    April 20, 2012 @ 8:18 am | by Neil Briscoe

    Deep in the depths of a faceless industrial estate on the outskirts of Turin, Fiat is having another go at being a maker of large cars. Well, larger anyway.

    For the past while, Fiat has basically ignored any new car development larger than a Punto. The Focus-sized Bravo has been allowed to plug along while we wait for its Qashqai-like replacement while the larger Croma is long since dead, a fate which shortly afterwards befell the quirky-but-good Multipla six-seat MPV.

    So it’s just been a diet of traditional small cars for Fiat since then. A new Panda. New variations on the successful 500 formula. A facelift for the Punto. Fiat has always done small cars especially well, but it really needs to crack the larger car markets if it’s ever going to start turning consistent profits. Small cars are tough to make money on, no matter how good they are.

    That’s why the new 500 L is taking shape within Fiat’s Centro Stile (design centre to you and I) in Turin, under the watchful eye of chief designer Roberto Giolito:

    “In the one sense, this is meant to be a larger 500, right from the beginning. But even the new Panda has taken some of the 500′s feeling, the same design, the same approaches. So for the 500 L we dedicated more 500 feeling to the styling, the visualisation. But even so, it would have been a pity not to use the more functional elements from the Panda to create a more functional 500 model. More to be used and abused in any condition.”

    What is a 500 L? Well, obviously it’s a spin-off from the dinky 500 hatch, right? Wrong. Actually it’s a half-way house between a compact MPV to replace the little-seen and little-loved Idea and a compact crossover to take on the likes of the Skoda Yeti and Mini Countryman, a car to which it bears a passing, if coincidental, visual relationship.

    Crucially for Fiat, it’s also a way to keep happy 500 buyers in the family when their lifestyles or children have outgrown the confined compartment of Fiat’s fashionable small one. Again, a similar task to the one that the Countryman does for Mini.

    Of the 500 itself, there is little mechanical carryover. It will share 1.3 MultiJet diesel engines and the dinky, revvy (and noisy) 875cc TwinAir petrol with the 500, and there are obvious styling references. But the platform is actually closer related to that of the Punto (hence the 4.14-metre length) and the cabin owes more to the new Panda in styling terms, with its ‘Squircle’ wheel and glossy, high quality surfaces.

    Persuading customers that it can “do” high quality has always been an uphill struggle for Fiat, but having prodded and poked a pre-production prototype it certainly looks and feels good so far. There’s leg and headroom in the back seats for full-sized adults (albeit the optional full-length glass sunroof robs an inch or so) and the front seats and driving position (in left hand drive) feel comfy. And it looks stylish too, with body coloured panels on the dash, a new touch-screen infotainment system that will  be standard on all models (Irish specs are still TBC though) and gorgeous two-tone seats even on the basic Pop model.

    Interestingly, Roberto Gioloto was in charge of the design for the controversial 1998 Multipla (the bug-eyed one that so polarised opinion). Given that the more conventional 500 L is, partially, a replacement for that car, I asked Roberto if he thought Fiat could ever again bring out a car with such ground-breaking design:

    “With the 1998 Multipla, we had a different construction, a spaceframe chassis, which gave us the opportunity to host many different layouts for engines etc. So the times with the Multipla were the times when we dreamt about building up a new lineup of products; low volumes, low investment, but big differences between the products. In these days, we are going into standardisation of parts, into creating a common literature among Chrysler and the Fiat Group. For this reason, costs are much harder, but the innovation in terms of usability, that is the key to design. Creating the right mixture among tradition and the future.

    “For this reason I would like to see the new products creating no turbulence with the environment. Especially creating the right path for innovation in a day by day sense, not just with dramatic emphasis.

    “But if the Citroen DS in the fifties, or the Mini the original Fiat 500 were adopted by the people as normal cars, then I trust the customer now to have this vision that our fathers had in those years. It’s a good perspective to have the same customers with the open mind to accept the new.”

    So that’s a no, then, with a maybe at the end.

    Quite apart from any styling issues though, here’s the crucial question. Can Fiat actually build and sell a large(ish) car with any level of success? It’s a thorny issue. The company is justifiably famed for its tiddlers, but the Bravo has been ignored by both customers and the Fiat itself while rivals like the Focus, Golf and Kia Cee’d have gone from strength to strength. The less said about the disastrous last-generation Croma the better. Fiat has major perception issues when it comes to selling larger vehicles.

    Attaching it to the 500′s coat-tails seems a smart move. The shape has translated to a quasi-SUV application about as well as Mini did with the Countryman – which is to say not entirely pretty but pleasingly chunky all the same. The practical matters of spacious rear seats and a decent boot have been taken care of and a standard five-year warranty should boost its image in quality terms. And it won’t be alone. A stretched seven-seat version follows next year while a chunkier, more obviously SUV-ish 500 X crossover (with optional four wheel drive) is waiting in the wings.

    Certainly, the 500 L is entering right at the heart of the market’s sweet point; there’s nothing more fashionable than a family-sized hatch with faux-by-four styling. If it drives well, and is priced right, then Fiat could finally break its large car duck.

    It needs to. Fiat’s last big hit was the 500 which is now a four year old design. The 500 L will also be sold in the US market, where it’s smaller brother has been picking up some healthy sales and critical approval. Fiat in Europe is currently under a strict new model development freeze (hence the dearth of new products for both itself and Alfa Romeo) which the 500 L signals the end of, and the beginning of a series of significant launches. With market share in Europe falling and the encroaching Korean (and eventually Chinese) opposition, Fiat needs this big-ish car to be a more than big-ish hit, right out of the gate.

  • High times for hybrid?

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:37 am | by Neil Briscoe

    Toyota has just had a record month in the US for Prius sales, with a fairly healthy 25,000 of the petrol-electric hybrids finding homes. Organic, rain-water-fed recycling homes, presumably. According to Bloomberg News, the sales record is primarily down to the price of petrol in the US spiking up towards $5.00 a gallon. Never mind that that works out about €1.02 a litre, that’s a high enough price to give US car buyers the heebie-jeebies and start heading for their nearest Toyota dealership.

    With fuel prices not exactly being on the low side here in Europe, does that mean that hybrid technology, twenty years a-gestating, is finally to have its day in the sun? Will we all, in the next few years, be driving hybrids?

    Hmmmm. Possibly not is the predictably chin-stroking answer. If hybrids did exactly what they said on the tin, then the answer would be almost certainly yes, but it’s just not that simple. Never is.

    In the US market, despite the recent efforts of Volkswagen, diesel remains a very minor player. The only people filling up at diesel pumps in the US are those with Peterbilt or Kenworth keyrings and the odd geography teacher with an ancient W114 Mercedes diesel estate. And while that is all set to change over the next few years, for now, if you want a car that sucks less juice, you go for a hybrid.

    In Europe, the picture is much more muddied. Here, diesel is currently king and nowhere more so than right here in Ireland. Once the Vehicle Registration Tax and motor tax setup was changed in 2008, from engine capacity to Co2, the Irish car market did an almost overnight flip from petrol to diesel. Where once around a third of the cars sold every year filled up from the black pump, now it’s less than a third that don’t.

    And that puts hybrid in an awkward position. Why? Because of the difference between real world and claimed fuel economy. Toyota claims an official fuel economy figure of 3.9-litres per 100km for the Prius (running on 15” alloy wheels, you lose 0.1l/100km if you go for the 17” option). That’s 72mpg which is ludicrously impressive. And almost impossible to match. The last time I test drove a standard Prius, my average fuel economy for the week (including motorway runs, snarled-up city driving and ordinary main roads) worked out at 5.9-litres per 100km. And this is not just an issue for Toyota, it’s the case with pretty much every hybrid I’ve ever test driven. The systems perform beautifully in the closed-loop laboratory conditions of the official EU fuel economy tests, but in the real world, in real conditions, it’s much, much harder to make them stack up.

    I do know, anecdotally, of Prius owners who claim to be able to match or even beat the official figures. How they are doing this is unknown. Whether this is something they can replicate on a daily basis is even less known.

    Diesels, on the other hand, will often match their claimed figures in real world conditions, or at least get significantly closer to them than hybrids seem to be able to manage, and combined with the sort of punchy turbocharged performance that hybrids significantly lack, makes a good compact diesel a much more attractive solution to saving fuel.

    So, QED, hybrids are for petrol-hungry Americans only and diesel remains king here, right?

    Well, perhaps not. For a start, hybrids are becoming ever more common. A few short years ago, there were only two on the market; the Prius and the Honda Civic IMA. Now, the Prius family is growing to include the smaller Prius-C and the seven-seat Prius-Plus. All Lexus models, bar the compact IS saloon, have a hybrid version. Honda now has three hybrid models, PSA Peugeot Citroen’s clever 4wd diesel hybrid is just coming onto the market and pretty much everyone else from Ford to VW to Volvo has hybrid powertrains in the works.

    Secondly, there does seem to be a steady groundswell of appreciation for hybrids, certainly among existing owners. Toyota, for one, is reporting steady repeat custom for its hybrid models, with Ian Corbett, marketing operations manager for Toyota Ireland saying “Apart from the obvious benefits of hybrid fuel economy and lower CO2 emissions hybrid owners much prefer the driving experience of a hybrid over a manual vehicle having experienced both.

    “While the market is still predominantly a diesel market we have found that hybrid owners buy a hybrid again. In relation to Auris Hybrid, the customer feedback we have had from first time owners, which many of the Auris hybrid customers are, is overwhelmingly positive. Hybrid already accounts for 15% of our Auris sales, we have no doubt that as we introduce other hybrid models such as Yaris and Prius Plus seven seater, overall hybrid sales will continue to grow.”

    That doesn’t quite tally with the figures that came just a few days later from US consumer analysts Polk. The researchers at Polk find that only around a third of hybrid buyers in the States go back for another hybrid afterwards, and that if you take the reliable repeat custom of the Toyota Prius out of that equation, the figure drops to below 25% going back for another one.

    In fact, in spite of the high petrol prices currently blighting US forecourts as badly as our own (albeit at different levels), hybrids actually have a smaller market share now than they did in 2008. Buyers are still being put off by the fact that conventional cars appear to be able to give 90% of the economy benefits of a hybrid, yet are (generally) nicer to look at and drive.

    You have to ask the question; why is the motoring world and its motoring dog constantly chasing the hybrid dream? Virtually every new car model set to launch in the next two years is expected to have a full hybrid, ‘mild’ hybrid or even plugin hybrid version. Given that the best diesels and petrols can now virtually equal hybrids for emissions and economy (at least if you take the real world figures) and given that pure electric cars are just a beefier battery away from mass acceptance, what place is there left for hybrid?

    In many ways, one suspects that for an awful lot of car makers, hybrid is on the menu simply because of customer expectation and a need to be seen to be doing something with regards to lowering overall Co2 emissions. Never mind that a diesel or even petrol offering may actually be more efficient, the public has come to accept hybrid as the acceptable face of green motoring, so one must be offered.

    Last year, I drove a prototype of the Prius plugin, and with just an 18km electric-only range, and my usual mix of driving, I was able to extract a reliable 4.1-litres per 100km from it. Fantastic. Of course, Toyota claims 2.1-litres per 100km. Some things never change…

  • Ferdinand Alexander Porsche. 1935 to 2012.

    April 10, 2012 @ 9:16 pm | by Neil Briscoe


    When asked to pick a single favourite car, there are more than a few of us who’ll instantly answer ‘Porsche 911.’ Yet the rear engined sportscar, so long an icon of the company that makes it and a yardstick for all other makers of sporting machinery, wasn’t the favourite car of its creator.

    Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, who has just passed away at the age of 76, was born in Stuttgart in December 1935 and pretty much instantly nicknamed ‘Butzi.’ It was a nickname he disliked, and it translates roughly as Little Buddy, but it was quite a necessary one; both his father and grandfather, the creators of the Porsche empire, were also named Ferdinand as of course is his cousin, Volkswagen boss Ferdinand Piech.

    Having studied at the Ulm College of Design and apprenticed at Robert Bosch GMBh in Stuttgart, Ferdinand began working with the family firm in 1958, gravitating to the design and prototyping department.

    With the successful first-generation Porsche, the 356, needing a replacement the job fell to Ferdinand to take the same sporting, rear-engined concept and update it. Longer (but narrower), more spacious and with a more powerful flat-six engine, the Type 901 was unveiled to the public at the Frankfurt motor show in September 1963. After a brief bit of legal wrangling with Peugeot over the use of an 0 in the name, the 911 was born and Porsche has never replaced it.

    The fact that the 911 and its shape has remained so iconic is doubtless down to Ferdinand’s maxim that “Design must be functional and functionality must be translated into visual esthetics, without any reliance on gimmicks that have to be explained. A product that is coherent in form requires no embellishment. It is enhanced by the purity of its form.” Put simply, there is no car design that has weathered the test of time as superbly as the 911. Fifty years on, it is as perfect as ever.

    Ferdinand would leave Porsche as a car maker a decade later, under something of a cloud as he and Ferdinand Piech fought over the direction of the company. So hard-fought was their feud that the rest of the family banned them both from the firm and restructured it into a public company. How ironic, then, that Piech’s mighty Volkswagen empire is now in the process of swallowing Porsche whole.

    Leaving the car industry behind, Ferdinand established F.A. Porsche Design, which began by designing expensive watches and has since gone on to create or licence the design of everything from fridges and kitchenware to cameras, pens and sunglasses. While not all of the products can boast the design purity that Ferdinand aspired to, the aesthetic is that same crisp, clear simplicity of the early 911.

    He would return to the Porsche AG car company as chairman from 1990 to 1993, and it was his tackling of the firm’s financial crisis, and his appointment of Wendelin Wiedeking as CEO, that started Porsche on its recent journey to automotive economic colossus.

    But why was the evergreen 911 not the favourite of its creator? Apparently, Ferdinand felt that too many others had a hand in meddling and fiddling with his early designs and concepts for the 911, and while he is credited as the car’s father, he felt it not enough of his own work. His personal favourite was the achingly pretty 904 race car, a car that went so swiftly from sketch to construction that no-one else was able to alter it.

    No-one other than Renault Alpine has ever tried to market a rear-engined 2+2 coupe, so the 911, and Ferdinand Alexander’s influence is not directly felt but rather permeated throughout the car industry. The simple, crisp desirability of the styling and engineering package is what all car makers aspire to and the fact that the 911’s performance and dynamics remain the yardstick by which others are judged prove that Ferdinand Alexander Porsche’s second favourite car is still number one with so many.

    Ferdinand Alexander Porsche. 1935 – 2012. RIP.

  • Hang ups about hanging up

    April 2, 2012 @ 3:19 pm | by Neil Briscoe


    Chapel Hill in North Carolina, USA, is not the sort of place that hits international headlines very much. It’s home to the respected University of North Carolina and the town’s Morehead planetarium was used in the sixties to train Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts in celestial navigation.

    But now, Chapel Hill is in the headlines, big time, because you can’t use your mobile phone when behind the wheel. At all. Not even on a hands free. Well, almost.

    The ban on in-car phone usage is due to come into force on June 1st, and at first, there are a few loopholes. For a start, the fine for transgression is a mere $25 and the law does allow you to make calls to a spouse, parent or child. (Which sounds like a heck of a loophole as I reckon about 90% of the calls I make and receive in the car are from or to my wife). Nonetheless, the move has been praised by the National Safety Council (NSC) (a US not-for-profit organisation that seeks to promote safety in the workplace, car and at home): “In passing a total ban, Chapel Hill has taken a significant step toward making their roads safer,” said Janet Froetscher, president and CEO at NSC. “Research shows hand-free devices offer drivers no safety benefit. Passing total cell phone bans – that include handheld and hands-free use – makes our roads safer. We praise Chapel Hill for this action. It will save lives.”

    It won’t stop at Chapel Hill. It’s the first official act of US-based groundswell that is looking to ban any in-car device that takes your attention away from the road for more than two seconds.

    This isn’t some crazy, minor-political-party wheeze either. This charge is being led by federal agencies, such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB). The NTSB’s chair person has said that “According to NHTSA, more than 3,000 people lost their lives last year in distraction-related accidents. It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving. No call, no text, no update, is worth a human life.”

    US Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood, whose decision it would ultimately be to enact nationwide legislation to ban using your phone in the car, has so far declined to endorse the NTSB’s call to action. Having said that, Mr La Hood has been prominent in the news in recent years calling for fewer distractions when behind the wheel. And following recent high-profile accidents in Missouri and Kentucky, which were blamed on drivers being distracted by phones, the calls for a ban aren’t going to go away.

    Any in-car distraction, from a music player to a sat-nav, could be on the hitlist. The NHTSA’s recommendation is that no function in the car should distract the driver from the road for more than two seconds. Sat-nav in particular is being picked out as the next on the chopping block, with the NHTSA saying that it should only be possible to input new destinations or settings into the sat-nav when the car is at a standstill. Some built-in systems, such as those used by Lexus, already incorporate such a safety feature, but most others don’t, and none of the aftermarket sat-navs do.
    So, given that Europe tends to follow where the US leads in terms of motoring legislation (emissions control, catalytic convertors, unleaded petrol, airbags, high centre brake lights, the list goes on), are we going to see similar legislation proposed or introduced here?

    Well, while it would not be beyond the bounds of likelihood that an individual politician or their party could instigate legislation or debate, whether out of genuine concern or simply to get their faces in the paper, it seems that we are taking a much more sensible tack on this side of the Atlantic.

    Michel Van Ratingen, Secretary General of the European New Car Assessment Programme (EuroNCAP, the crash safety experts) told us that “EuroNCAP is luckily not in the business of banning anything. Consumers must be aware that there is risk associated to doing things that require you to shift your attention away from the road, whether that is calling on the phone, texting, using on-board entertainment, attending to the kids in the rear, etc.

    “In our view, raising awareness and education are more appropriate policies than banning behaviour that may not be enforceable, or implementing intrusive laws. If such countermeasures are really needed, they should be based on solid real world studies that provide evidence that the countermeasures deliver the improved safety expected, including the possible negative side effects.”

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