Prisoners of their own heritage

Many (if not most) industries’ main battle is innovation. Since its very early days, competition in the car industry has been about being the fastest, the lightest, the best looking, the most reliable, the safest… However, as manufacturers chased superlatives throughout the years, some dominant designs have been immortalised and certain features have become a cult. This is part of growing as a company and building a brand and a following, no matter the industry or context. Just as the three stripes are mandatory for Adidas, the kidney-shaped front grill allows you to recognise a BMW even before you can see its badge.

However, while the BMW nostrils are a timeless and superficial design feature that is easily adaptable as decades go by, other characteristics are harder to maintain over time and a rich history may become a trap. This is especially true when cult is related to technology, rather than design. Still taking BMW’s example, they have just given us their first front-wheel drive (FWD) model – the 2-series Active Tourer – going against its own anti-FWD campaigns and enthusiasts have been left half-disappointed, half-offended. I am a BMW fan myself and I applaud their preference for the rear-wheel drive layout, however I understand that they must listen to the market’s needs and some logical decisions must be taken if these companies are to be sustainable. On a FWD car no space is taken by the transmission tunnel inside the cabin, the car’s layout is tidier and more compact and the 2-AT becomes a more practical solution (for whoever woke up needing a practical BMW in their life!).

The biggest prisoner of its own heritage, however, is Porsche and its most important model, the 911. The 911 is the most outstanding case of incremental evolution, having kept the rear-engine architecture for more than 50 years. It has always been sold to us as a recipe with clearly defined ingredients that evolves over time. But how many of these ingredients can be changed by evolution? Where does heritage stop being an asset and start becoming a hindrance to innovation?

Porsche 911: Evolution of the species

Porsche 911 (Turbo): Evolution of the species

Along the years, fans have been outraged by the move to water-cooling in the late ‘90s, the simultaneous loss of the round headlights (which thankfully came back), the electric power steering system in the 991 and the lack of a manual gearbox in the GT3. Very logical reasons are behind these evolutions, namely greater efficiency and increased performance (except for those 996 headlights – what was that all about?!). However, purists do not care about the logical side of such a passionate car.

Porsche 911 996 frontend & headlights

Porsche 911 996 frontend & headlights

Can you imagine the disappointment and outrage when Stuttgart confirms what the press has been announcing for a while: the introduction of turbos in the entire 911 range? If electric power steering or water-cooling raised eyebrows, the death of the naturally-aspirated 911 is a major make-over and a full-on blasphemy! Will electronic systems be clever enough to manage the turbo and give us that delicious power delivery along the rev range? And what about that loud, rough flat-six cough?

Logical hats on now: Porsche and other manufacturers have the EU bullying them heavily on fuel economy and emissions, while they must still keep customers happy with more and more horsepower. What are they supposed to do but resort to turbos and other witchcraft?!

The world is becoming a weird place. Or maybe I am starting to become old (I’m 24 though…) but the next Ferrari mid-engined berlinetta will be a Turbo, the new Ford GT proudly presents a V6, AMGs and BMW Ms are all going for smaller displacement turbo’ed engines… I wonder what will disappear next. Will it be the Aston Martin V12? The 4wd Audi RSs? The spartan Lotus construction?…

Maybe we, the purists, are the ones who are wrong by wanting our future dreams to be shaped by philosophies of the past. Times move on, the world changes and the market evolves. Let’s hope cars keep impressing us! In the meantime, we can drown our sorrows in the second-hand car market.

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Probably the worst car I have ever driven

Yesterday I sold my sister Joana’s second-gen Smart ForTwo and I was not expecting to be this sad.

Like a Porsche 911, the Smart is rear-engined, has rear-wheel-drive and is German. And that is where the similarities end. Unlike the Porsche 911, it has less than 100 horsepower, it is tall and narrow, it has skinny tyres, it does not know downforce, its centre of gravity is pulled ever so high by a glass panoramic roof, the suspension is awful, the gearbox is moody and stubborn, and it is high off the ground which makes its aerodynamics even worse. Wrapping it up simply, the Smart is electronically limited at 150 km/h and you feel grateful for it. The terrible aerodynamics make it loud inside and it is not as easy to park as one would think because the rear visibility is not great.

You either hate the thing or you love it. The reasons to hate it are pretty clear. Why would I be sad to see it go, then?

It is full of character. If the Smart was a dog, it wouldn’t be a small, vicious terrier with Napoleon’s syndrome, thinking it is a big and tough beast. It would just be a happy, playful pup who will tremble in the face of danger or stare at you drooling happily while you desperately try to teach him some tricks. It is not clever, it won’t defend you from danger, but it never promised any of that. It is just a silly puppy that will keep you good company.

"Look at my silly face!"

“Look at my silly face!”

On the road, it corners terribly and it feels like it is made of paper, but it doesn’t try to be anything other than that. It does not have any sportscar pretentions. Yes, our one has F1-style gearshift paddles on the steering wheel and a rev counter standing tall on the dashboard, but that is just an addition of flare. Never do you see the word “sport” or “race” or any “GTXVRZ” acronyms on the car. “Pulse” was the word chosen to describe the more spirited version of the Smart – the one we had – which came with the aforementioned paddleshift gearbox, wider tyres and a prettier steering wheel.

This Smart was one of the first cars I got to drive out on the open. When I was sixteen and I did not have a license, Joana would take me to a closed-off road on the seaside and let me drive up and down the 300m stretch of road, a delight for a kid who had never driven outside parking lots. After that, in the past years, I have had several opportunities to use the car in long and short drives and as a daily driver for longer periods. The 3-cylinder petrol engine had a deep note, the sheer practicality of the thing was fascinating and because of its low weight it was agile. My favourite thing about it: the steering. Without power steering, parking was a frustrating workout but through ambitiously fast corners it gave you as much feedback as a go-kart. These details are very satisfying when you don’t have much else to play with. The engine would never surprise you – it did not have the grunt for that – but it was responsive enough to sneak in last minute into every roundabout and intersection like no other city-dweller could.

Yesterday I glanced back at it one last time, the same silly smiley face blinked its hazard lights three times as I locked it and it stayed in my parents’ garage for my father to take it to the new owner the following day.

This is why cars are fascinating. Some say they are machines built for a purpose. Are they, though? Then why did leaving a “machine” behind make me so emotional? Especially a machine that was quite sloppy at fulfilling its purpose?

I love cars.

P.S. The guy who was supposed to take the Smart from us called back even before we delivered the car to him. He wanted a 500 Euro discount. Therefore, the car is sitting downstairs in the garage and is still ours. Screw that guy.

[Written on the 4th December 2014]

Fun to the People!

I remember a time when the 200 horsepower band was the top-of-the-range hot-hatch territory, M3s and 911s sat in the 300hp interval and anything kicking out more than 500 horses came only with intergalactic looks and hysterical exhausts. The thirst for power was on and had yet to be quenched, however the world seemed to be at a nice balance.

Looking at the current range of cars, I start to feel that we might have gone a little too far. The current BMW M5 – the F10 – comes with almost 600hp of twinturbo’ed muscle, Porsches are so powerful that it is hard to believe their engine displacement and hypercars are hitting almost four figures of power! Four. Figures.

In fact, cars have become so powerful that the aforementioned M5 has been deemed by Car Throttle’s Alex Kersten as more powerful than what is desirable for use in the UK and Jeremy Clarkson, a.k.a. Dr. Power, could only suggest one improvement for the Ferrari F12: less power.

Obviously, electronic driving aids and chassis set-up techniques have accompanied the horsepower wars. Systems have indeed become so clever that some already let you show-off exuberant slides whilst looking after your reputation and avoiding a catastrophe.

However, if a car is to be enjoyed at its fullest and the driver is to really exploit its abilities, computers are to be left aside. Few things are more frustrating than lights flashing in beeping panic when you are about to hit that apex. Turning aids off in this case makes sense: if you are to really assess a car’s competencies, you should not give it cheat notes. Nonetheless, with that safety net gone, a good chassis will guarantee good handling, but once you get in trouble, it will not do much for you.

Now, considering the performance of today’s sportscars and safely assuming that we are not all of Fittipaldi or Vatanen lineage, not many people are able to impress today’s top-of-the-range cars on the road which will not tap out of a fight easily. Therefore, we can conclude that if you buy one of these modern über-cars, you will never be able to reach its full potential and drive it on the limit [more on driving on the limit here]. For all this, huge praise should be given to Toyota for the GT86 (a.k.a. Scion FRS or Subaru BRZ).

As car engines become more powerful, their computers become smarter and their chassis more athletic… their price rockets up. Technology is expensive. Toyota thought simple, listened to the cries of non-millionaire petrolheads and has given us the GT86: a rear-wheel drive car, a 200 horsepower boxer engine, normal width tyres, light construction and a fierce presence. The car is built with quality, however it is a brilliant act of “simplication”. It is not worried about the power guerrilla, it is not concerned about Nurburgring lap times, it does not want to impress you on paper. The GT86 wants to bring back affordable driving thrills and wide smiles. Hence, it is a car with less power than a modern Golf GTI, which is also more fun, cheaper and much more eventful.

How thrilling is it after all? No one has put it better than Chris Harris when he tested it against a Porsche Cayman S and a Nissan 370Z:

It says, “Do you know what? I’m just going to go sideways a bit here. But actually, you don’t really need to correct it a bit.” You just feel like you’re steering the car from the back axle, and you don’t worry about the lack of torque too much.

When you want to rev it out, you just rev it out. There she goes.

And that, that’s very difficult to engineer into a car, so they’ve done a great job with this. And you can’t describe it through numbers.

THE VICIOUS CIRCLE OF AUTOMOTIVE INNOVATIONS

More power demands better handling, which demands technology, which is costly and heavy, weight demands power which emits more fumes, weight reduction is costly as expensive construction is required, fuel-saving tech is also expensive… cars end up incredibly complicated as they keep adding features that require extra features to delete the negative effects of those new features … all very, very elaborate and clever and that is reflected on price. Let’s turn the vicious circle of innovations in our favour then: simple power, simple engine, moderate emissions, low weight, good handling… again, the price will reflect your efforts – cheap.

In addition to this amazing act of common sense and automotive simplicity, Toyota has shared the costs of development of this car with Subaru, making RWD thrills even more affordable to the masses. We can only thank Toyota and Subaru for reopening this segment and we can cross our fingers for other manufacturers to look into this market opportunity and throw worthy competition at the GT86.

WHAT IS THE IMPORTANCE OF THIS CAR FOR AVERAGE JOE?

In conclusion, the GT86 and the possibility of the return of the affordable RWD segment not only awards petrolheads with driving fun that will not lead to financial disaster. It also gives the rest of the world roads that in the most immediate future are populated by simpler cars that consume less fuel, pollute less, and – additional theory of mine – that have happier drivers behind the wheel leading to less road rage, increased life expectancy and better quality of life overall. (Too far?)

I therefore suggest a paradigm shift: focus more on “Fun to the people” rather than “Power to the people”.

Important final note:

We don’t need fire-breathing engines and spine-crushing acceleration in this particular kind of car. This would be the generic every day smile-maker. By no means am I asking for the death of the madmobile. I am just as curious and fascinated as everyone else about where the power battles will lead to and how much more remarkable cars can get.

Please keep horsepower coming! Make cars better, faster, sharper, madder. I raise my glass to the supercar and to those who can afford them and let us see them on our streets.

Formula E – a championship everyone needs

The FIA Formula E Championship started last weekend. The time came and the whizzing single-seaters took to the streets for the Beijing ePrix.

I started accompanying the development of this project even before the summer of 2012, time when the championship gained its FIA accreditation, and I have even actively started the quest to bring an ePrix to my birthplace’s historic urban circuit. It must have been a nerve-wrecking and psychologically-tough ride for the executing team. The criticism has been heavy and it is highly likely that it will get even worse as the tiniest mishap in this opening season will be a good enough weapon of mass-media-destruction. Agag and his team have gone to all lengths possible to promote this new racing series as buzz-creation and PR was key to convince partners and get the world’s attention. However, by stepping onto the main stage they have fully exposed themselves to the ruthlessness of the media. As it turns out, it looks like some of the naysayers are starting to go quiet.

I raise my glass to the men and women behind the project. They have been brave and have stood up for this championship and are ready to take on the already destructively critical crowd. The mid-race car changes, the silence of the cars, their relatively low power and the racetrack layouts have been major sources of criticism and concern, which must be dealt with and embraced, not just ignored as silly or irrelevant. I hate this expression, but they are conducting a true paradigm shift and that always comes with scepticism.

Moreover, I applaud the way in which this championship has attracted so much legitimacy and know-how, surrounding itself with major names in the business: the tech comes from McLaren, Renault, Michelin and Williams; the driving is undertaken by talented drivers, many of which with Formula 1 experience; teams come from all corners of the earth, some of which simultaneously running in other racing series such as DTM, GP2 and Indy Car; and team management is undertaken by the likes of Mario Andretti and Alain Prost. It is a brilliant cocktail offered by no other racing series!

Finally, in my opinion, another point of praise for this initiative is the engagement of fans and conversion of non-fanatics into viewers of the sport. The races are being brought to the people by running them in the streets where they commute and interactivity has been introduced in the sport with the much criticised fan boost, that awards an extra 50 horsepower to the driver with the most online votes. In addition, the races will be shown on giant screens around the ePrix venue, to let those who are in the area see the action as well.

“There are 500,000 people each day in the olympic park in Beijing, so the more of them that choose to stay with us, the better,” – Alejandro Agag, CEO of FIA Formula E

This is a clear strategy to counter the tendency for reduced viewership seen in NASCAR and Formula 1 and these efforts to put the fans at the centre of attention deserve respect.

Why non-fans should be happy about the FIA Formula E

Motorsport, as we already know, is a major R&D centre for the automotive industry. It puts technology under exaggerated pressure by adding the competition factor, thereby accelerating its evolution. A lot of the technology in the cars we commute in everyday has come from racing efforts and it makes our lives easier and our cars safer and more efficient, directly boosting our quality of life in the short- and long-term. Electric vehicles (EVs) have been around for very long – more than a century, in fact – and in recent years they have gained more attention as environmental concerns started to speak a louder voice. However, only recently have there been real efforts to make electric cars exciting – the Tesla Roadster being the first truly sexy EV. The Formula E will let us see these cars as racing weapons, being put through their paces, locking up tyres… and even spectacularly flipping in the air and smashing upside down into a wall (video below).

The safety and construction quality of the chassis and the batteries is remarkable, letting Heidfeld escape unharmed! That safety technology is making its way to your future car.

Why racing fans should be happy about the FIA Formula E

Dear fellow gearheads (petrolheads sounds inappropriate in this article), we should all be ecstatic to witness a racing series come to life at such a high level of motorsports! A true racing fan’s taste is eclectic and versatile, somehow encompassing banger racing, regional rallying and Formula 1. Sit back, put your feet up and watch this all unfold. The cars may be slower, technical difficulties will arise, the circuits may not be perfect… but this is all about getting started and raising the bar higher and higher. All I wish is that we may all live long enough to see electric vehicle racing at its best, providing us fun-filled weekends, like combustion-powered cars have been doing for so long. The first ePrix was a huge success with a lot of overtakes and a dramatic end decided by the very last corner so we will be waiting impatiently for the next one, in Malaysia.

Thank you, Mr Agag & Friends!

[Photo & Video credits: FIA Formula E]

Driving on the limit

Driving on the limit is about getting the most out of a sports car. Cars are brought to us by manufacturers in a recipe of engine, chassis, brakes, suspension and other meticulous ingredients to provide an experience. Some are laid-back cruisers, some are meant to make your life easier, some are not good at anything and some – my favourite kind – are crafted for dynamics and speed.

Now, as much as I am delighted every time I see a sports car, the painful truth is that most probably that machine will not ever be given the opportunity to show its worth. So many superbly engineered cars end up serving as shortcuts into expensive night clubs or as pheromone-like bling to attract the shallow end of the opposite sex.

I understand those who choose to treat valuable sports cars as so-called garage queens. These are people who truly treasure what they own, see the tangible and intangible value of the whole event that a car can be and immortalise their rides by exposing them to the least wear and tear possible. They may not exploit all of the car’s performance capabilities, but keep them as museum pieces. I respect that. However, getting your Mercedes SLS out exclusively to parade it to an overpriced restaurant is like watering your plants with Veuve Clicquot: a plain dumb waste.

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Not all sports cars are just speed freaks, as they have very different personalities. A Ferrari 458 is as competently fast as it is playful and silly, a McLaren 12C is to be driven with precision, a Porsche Turbo is a beast that will not be as lenient with your mistakes as a Lancer Evo or an Audi R8 will, and so on. These personalities should be identified and then fostered. Your driving should suit the car, but ultimately, driving on the limit demands a cool head, focus and a lot of respect.

When a car is at the very edge of grip, when the line around a corner cannot get tighter, when you could not have hit the power much earlier out of a corner, when you could not have shifted down a split second later into that tight bend. That is my definition of the limit. I am talking about fast, effective driving, maximum G, slicing trajectories, apex-apex-apex. The limit is not lighting up the rear tyres on a silly roundabout by stepping on second gear (yes, it’s a giggle every single time!). You will not always be on the limit, because wishing to be a racing driver is not enough to be one, but it will be clear when the limit is near. The machine is working at its hardest and its balance and grip are at the very edge. When you exit the corner and the wheels all finally align but there is a slight snap of the tail… That is the car version of a high five. A tiny bit of opposite lock required? That’s your fistbump! You and the car are now bros.

(We firmly discourage irresponsible driving on public roads. The road is shared by all and nothing justifies illegal and/or dangerous behaviour. Feeling thrill-thristy? Go on a track day!)

[Photo credits: Alexis-Goure MotorsportPhotographer, http://www.alexis-goure.com/]

On being a petrolhead

Versailles, 24th June 2013

Yesterday, for the ninetieth time, the world’s most spectacular motorsport event has seen its checkered flag.

This time I was present. More than the obvious privilege, the 24 Heures du Mans is a reassuring experience for a motorsports fanatic. You call yourself a petrolhead, but you only realise how big this passion is when it requires you to take days off work, rearrange your life, travel abroad, eat overpriced fast-food, stay up all night, get rained on, stand for hours unprotected from bone-cutting wind and bury your feet in mud and… still, you are smiling.

A race this long allows you to get carried away and involved into the sport at all levels, in a way that the usual two-hour grand prix does not allow. You spend moments listening closely to Radio Le Mans, comparing tyre strategies between teams and calculating pitstops and refueling advantages. Other moments you just sit back and enjoy the symphony that is playing for you of fast fly-bys and precise gearbox downshifts and the sights of the most extremelly designed cars slicing through the racing line.

The long race also provides you with plenty of moments to realise how much you love this sport. After all, what is this thing of being a petrolhead?

It is the moment when you are standing, in the middle of the night, at the Indianapolis corner, and an Aston Martin’s side exhaust backfires right in front of you, you see the flame and you feel the explosion blast wave hit your chest, you look to your left and your friend is looking at you with a smile and only you both know how cool that moment right there was.

It is the feeling of urgency when you wake up from two little hours of sleep at the car park and you think you are already missing too much action, even if there are still six hours of racing to go.

It is the joy of having a “gaufre au sucre” and an espresso for breakfast, to the sound of whispering Audis and hysterical Corvettes drawing rubber lines at the Dunlop Esses.

Feeling your eyes burning and your knees wanting to let you fall once the race is over but gathering sufficient energy to follow a just-as-crazy friend sprinting all the way back to the paddock to get podium pictures before the endless crowd gathers there.

It is getting home after everyone is gone and you have put some dinner in your belly and instead of going to bed, you sit around a table with a beer and a giant bag of crisps talking about cars.

Some dare to judge it as obsessive, others admire such a level of interest, yet others share it with you. Here’s to all of you petrolheads! Here’s to the quarter million people who attend Le Mans every year and to the many more people who stop for F1, Rally and all other forms of motor racing! Here’s to motorsports, which has been around for so long, yet has so much ahead of itself.

I happily have one thing less on my list of cool things to do before I am gone. Next level: the 24 Heures du Mans with my father, the first person to blame for my liking of cars.