Sunday, November 30, 2014

Life Imitates Art Imitates Life On The Dragon

Above: James Thurber New Yorker cartoon, circa 80 years ago.  When this cartoon idea came in, the Editor said "Let
Thurber tinker with it.  His people don't bleed."

Touche indeed!  As a commenter said, "The cliche is strong with this one."

And this one, too.

"Where is this dragon you speak of?"  (Killboy's excellent caption, not mine.)

"Knee Dragon" (on a t-shirt).

Nesting dolls: a dragon draggin' his knee on the Dragon...

A more charitable approach to touche: the Reverend Walter preaches the word in the non-denominational Church of the
Everlasting Hold Up.  "Yea, though I pass through the Valley of the Little Tennessee, I will fear no car club weekend.
For their etiquette is with us; their pulloffs and my acknowledging wave or honk, they comfort me."  Preach it,
Brother Walter!  Can I get an Amen!?!?

Bottom line: love the road (it ain't hard).  What's the point of art, or beauty?  Art or beauty.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Cigar Car Meditation

Before the aero era, "If it looks right, it is right" was a race car engineering truism.  The most consistent exemplars of this rule among rear-engine cars were Colin Chapman's string of Lotuses: the 25, 33, and 49.  But I've always thought that Dan Gurney's Eagle-Westlake (designed by Len Terry, who learned at Chapman's knee) was the epitome of the rule.  So purposeful, with only hints of "styling," notably the beaked radiator intake.  Here's a link to a Wiki piece on the car that's both detailed and good, for those who want more:

It looks even better from a slight angle with unfinished wheels.

The Eagle won only one Grand Prix, but it was a doozie: the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps in 1967.  Dan was at the wheel, becoming the only American to win a Formula 1 race in a car of his own manufacture.  The engine was on its last legs; he probably wouldn't have completed another lap.  And he won partly because faster cars dropped out.  Still, a win is a win.

Above: back-in-the-day--Dan Gurney rounds the La Source hairpin at Spa on his way to victory in the 1967 Belgian GP.
Below: Gurney reprised his win in a demo run at Spa decades later.

For a few races before the Westlake V-12 was ready, Gurney ran Coventry-Climax engines.  Still the prettiest "cigar car"
of the early rear engine era (1959-1967).  This is a pic of a Climax-engined car at Monaco in a vintage event.

Of course, cigar cars were rolling firebombs.  Gasoline was packed wherever it would fit around the driver, in aluminum tanks without fire-resistant bladders.  No on-board fire extinguishers.  A sideways impact would collapse the monocoque, possibly trapping the driver and likely injuring his internal organs. 

The racing became steadily more dangerous in the mid 1960's as wheels went from 5-6 inches wide to 8-10, and tires got grippier.  Jackie Stewart spearheaded a move toward passive safety after his near-death-experience in the Masta Kink at Spa in 1965.  But I, and I think most other road-racing fans, was not tuned in.  Those were still the days of "You know the risk when you get into the car," and, as a 20-something with delusions of immortality, I had two serious problems with reality: 1) a juvenile, romantic, Hemingway-esque notion of death and 2) a juvenile, stupid, notion that death in a race car comes only to those lacking skill and judgement.  The ante was upped considerably in 1966 when engine size doubled from 1.5 liters to 3.0.  Power more than doubled, from about 175 to over 400, in cars that weighed about the same.

Several motorsports writers have remarked that Jim Clark's death in an "unimportant" race at Hockenheim in 1968 was a hammer-blow to the 1950's world-view that we shared.  Clark was the driver to beat from 1962 to his death.  He was the standard other drivers measured themselves by.  He never crashed.  "If it can happen to Jimmy, in a Formula 2 race when he's not even dicing with other drivers, it can happen to anyone."  Precisely.  And it was a sideways impact with a tree that killed Clark.  It was the beginning of wisdom for road racing fans, drivers, circuit owners, and sanctioning bodies.  We began listening to Jackie Stewart.

By 1969, cigar cars had become aero-light, even with all that drag from tires and suspension in the air stream.  Lateral grip had increased exponentially, vastly increasing corner speeds.  Colin Chapman tried huge, high, wings on the Lotus 49.  In the Spanish Grand Prix at Montjuich the rear wing on Jochen Rindt's car failed.  The car was completely destroyed and Rindt was lucky not to be killed.

The FIA banned high wings altogether, and began legislating the size and location of rear wings.  Designers began searching for maximum downforce and lower drag.  The era of shovel noses, tea-tray front wings, side radiators, and proto-sidepods had arrived.  The beautiful cigar car disappeared.  For 1970, Colin Chapman came up with the next breakthrough design, a wedge.  In its own functional way, it was good-looking too.  But not as pretty as my beloved, lethal, cigar cars.

Lotus 72 at a vintage event.  With torsion bar suspension, side radiators, and a wedge shape. it was a breakthrough design
that remained competitive for five years (1970-1974), a lifetime in Formula 1.  And the gasoline was enclosed in a fuel
bladder in a triangular tank between the driver's back and the engine: a less disaster-prone location, although it was
located there partly to minimize the effect of an emptying tank on weight distribution.  But I missed my cigar cars.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

2014 GP Of Abu Dhabi And Gratuitous Thoughts on 2015

The new regulations haven't improved the looks of the cars as much as I'd hoped.  But Martini & Rossi has always
used stylish graphics on the cars it sponsors, and makes a current F-1 car about as good-looking as it can be.  And,
to my surprise at least, Williams came up with the "best of the rest" chassis in a year in which Mercedes was as
dominant, or more, as any legendary dominance since Formula 1 began.  And both Felipe Massa (who's driving
career was supposed to be over) and Valtteri Bottas ("who?") delivered some impressive drives to give the three-
pointed star its only nail-biting moments of the season.

Claire Williams's title is Deputy Team Principal, but she and Rob Smedley (Chief Engineer) are the brain trust behind the
Williams comeback.  Frank Williams has, so far, remained Team Principal, but his health is not good.  Claire and Rob
Smedley run the team on a day-to-day basis.  They made some race strategy mis-calls in 2014 that probably won't be
repeated in 2015.

David Hobbs likes the Abu Dhabi course, and prefers it to Brazil for a season finale.  I can't agree.  Abu Dhabi is flat and featureless.  I say: move Brazil adjacent to the Canadian and U.S. GP's on the schedule, and revert the finale to Japan's marvelous Suzuka.  Some of the cookie-cutter GP's in the Far East can lead up to Suzuka.  While I'm at it, let's lose "double points" for the last race of the season and other hype-generators which ruin the pure competition.

For that matter, 19 races is too many.  The season is too long and Formula 1 has cheapened itself.
Mark Webber, who was unceremoniously dumped by Red Bull last year, Tweeted to Jensen Button, who might be unceremoniously dumped by McLaren this year, "come on over to the World Endurance Championship where we do 10-12 races per season.  There's life after Formula 1, WEC is fun and competitive, and I've gotten my personal life back with a 10-12 race season."  I understand Webber completely, and would watch the WEC on TV if it were available here in the States.

Speaking of McLaren, it's just as surprising that Fernando Alonso is returning there, after 5 years with Ferrari, as it was that Ferrari fired Alonso.  He was the only bright spot in a dismal season for the Scuderia and as I've written here before, nobody gets more out of his car on race day than Fernando.  The Talking Heads say that Alonso was the price of Honda's (new) exclusive engine deal with McLaren, which is McLaren's only chance to leapfrog its Mercedes-engined competitors.  It's not too much to say that Alonso and Ron Dennis (who has returned to active management of the McLaren F-1 team) detest each other.  I hope Dennis has the sense to retain Button, who is a very good test and development driver, and who has an excellent relationship with Honda.  Button just might win another Championship while the rest of the team implodes under an Alonso/Dennis contest of wills.

But McLaren will need a silver bullet or two.  Mercedes looks to be as dominant in 2015 as it was in 2014.  And Williams, who has the only car that can even compete with Mercedes, returns with the same personnel and a year's worth of experience in managing race strategy at the sharp end of the grid.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Um... Not So Much...

About a year ago, I posted that the interwebs said that the new Miata-based Alfa Romeo roadster (a design partnership) was a go: both firms had green-lighted the car.  It would have a Miata interior unibody structure and suspension, but an Alfa engine/transmission and the gorgeous PininFarina body shown above.  Or maybe a slightly uglier PininFarina skin that was crash-test compliant.  The best of Italy and Japan, blended seamlessly--a potentially great small-bore sports car.  In my heart, as Monty Python & The Holy Grail puts it, "there was much rejoicing."

Now comes the photo above of (as he says) "the new Miata-based Alfa" being tested on the Dragon.  I hope the Miata skin is a complete disguise.  If Alfa is going to charge a hefty price premium for its badge and heritage, the car needs to look a lot more like the top picture than the bottom one.  And have north of 200 horsepower.  And sound like an Alfa.  As long as I'm writing a specification, let's have a Torsen l.s.d. and a manual box.  Let's have some Italian flair with our Japanese refinement.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Off Topic: Manned Space Missions Rant

The Slingshot Effect

According to news reports, the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission, which lasted 10 years and was completely successful, cost $1.3 billion.  This was less than the price of a coffee-per-year for a European taxpayer.  The amount of space engineering know-how and potential scientific discovery added to our store of knowledge is significant.

Many times, I've seen American advocates for space exploration say that popular support can't be found unless 1) it's a manned mission and/or 2) the public is scared into it with Cold War boogie men.  As far as the public is concerned, they say, the Hubble Telescope and the Mars Landers were yawns.  Both were comparatively inexpensive but scientifically productive.

So NASA is now promoting and planning a manned mission to Mars, which will be expensive, take years to mount, and produce little science beyond what we already know.  Why?  Because it might capture the public imagination.  "Public Scientists," like Neil deGrasse Tyson, who know better, are promoting manned space exploration.

I object!  It's true that the human mind is more creative than computer-run experiments.  But humans can collaborate and refine the observations and experiments from the comfort of earth.  There is no need to lift 400-600 lbs. of biomass (people) and expensive life-support systems into orbit,  maintain them for years, and re-lift-off from Mars.  We're talking bang for our science buck here.  I don't know how many more space science missions could be done for the cost of one manned Mars mission, but it's orders-of-magnitute.

Above and below: tiny target, rich in hard science, as compared with the size of Los Angeles, which is more rich in the
social sciences.  ;-)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Alfa Romeo 4C

Alfa is back!

The American video road tests are rolling in, and the testers love it.  Duh...  What impresses me most, aside from the 4C's specification, is the price: $55K.  (That is, once they've shipped the ridiculously priced "launch" cars priced at $70K).

As for the 4C's specification, what's not to like?  237 horsepower (258 lbs./ft. of torque) in a car that weighs 2650 lbs.  A 6-speed twin-clutch paddle-shifted box, that has an automatic mode.  Zero to 60 in 4.3 seconds, around 1 G of cornering power depending on who's test results you believe.  (They're +/- hundredths on either side of 1G.)  For us traditionalists, the engine capacity is 1750 c.c.'s, harking back to the lovely GTA/GTV.

Here are links to a video road test (first) and a print ditto (second):

It is entirely fitting and proper, as Abe said, that the first manufacturer to offer an all-aluminum d.o.h.c. engine in an affordable sports car (1953) is now the first manufacturer to offer a carbon-fiber chassis in an affordable car.  Thus the impressive sitting-in-your-garage weight.  The 4C is so light that it doesn't even need power steering. Your hands are connected to the tire contact patches right through the steering rack.

What a Dragon Slayer!  Better than a Lotus Elise/Evora (and better looking), for less money.  I could quibble about some styling details (and I'd replace the wheels).  And a roadster would be nice.  But, basically, the only downside is that someone of my age and creakiness has to roll out of the car onto his hands and knees to exit.  I'd surrender my dignity for the driving experience.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Reading The Fine Print In The 2015 Mustang Catalog

A nicer place to live than my 2008.  This is an automatic-equipped car.  The shifter in the 6-speed that I sat in had a shorter
and smoother throw than my own 5-speed.

Got my hands on a 2015 Mustang brochure.  I won't get into options or packages that involve appearance, audio, and connectivity.  When it comes to these items, I am a Valley Girl: "What-evah." But I was interested in the Performance Packages for the 5.0 liter V-8 and the 2.3 liter 4.  The big news, of course, is independent rear suspension across the Mustang line.

Hotshoe guessed that the new car is slightly lower and wider than the old car, and it looks that way to me too.  But the dimensions are close enough to make no difference.  Wheelbase and length are unchanged.  The new car is an inch shorter and a not insignificant 3 inches wider.  As might be expected, the new car loses an inch of headroom but gains an inch of shoulder, hip, and legroom.  The cockpit seemed a bit tighter to me.  Given the similar interior dimensions, the best explanation is that the dashboard has been moved closer to the driver.  The ergonomics and quality of interior trim are better than my 2008 car.  Total passenger volume is unchanged, as is fuel capacity.  The trunk of the new car gains an insignificant cubic foot.  All this leads me to suspect that the internal unibody architecture of the S-197 platform remains essentially unchanged except for tweaking it to take the independent rear suspension mounting points.

On to the interesting stuff.  The 5.0 V-8 we looked at had sticky Pirelli P-Zero (summer only) tires.  The cost of the Performance Package option is $2500, which looks to be good value for money.  Here's a comparison of the Performance Packages of the V-8 and the I-4.

                                                                                      5.0 V-8                          2.3 I-4

larger front air splitter                                                   yes                               yes

strut tower brace                                                             yes                               no

larger radiator                                                                 yes                               yes

larger rear sway bar                                                        yes                              yes

heavy duty front springs                                                yes                              yes

oil pressure & vacuum gauges                                      yes                              yes

larger front calipers (6/4 pot)                                      yes                              yes  

19" X 9" front wheels  (255/40 tires)                          yes                              yes

19" X 9.5" rear wheels (275/40 tires)                         yes                               no

tweaked electric power steering                                  yes                               yes

adjustable ABS/stability control                                 yes                              yes

Torsen limited slip, 3.73 ratio                                     yes                              no

limited slip, 3.55 ratio                                                   no                               yes

Interestingly, the 2.3 turbo makes its maximum power (310) at 5500 r.p.m. and its maximum torque (320) at 3000 r.p.m.  It's a lower-revving engine than the V-8, who's corresponding numbers are 435 at 6500 and 400 at 4250.  It would probably be quicker away from a traffic light than the V-8 but for the 5% lower axle ratio.  But my hope that the 2.3 would be as fast at a track-day has been dashed.  Its more neutral handling and better front grip look to be quickly offset by the power of the V-8, if the latter is up to full song as it enters a straight.

Mustang being Mustang, there will soon be a "Laguna Edition" (or the like) of one or both models, at a hefty price premium.  It will post bigger handling and speed numbers, and rattle your fillings in the process.  Not to mention that both Performance Package models will be attacked by the aftermarket people.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Trusty Steeds & Terriers

Trigger with Roy Rogers.  Snappy dressers.  Watch your foot, there, Roy...

For two generations now (my kids and their kids), it's been Star Wars.  Whether it's video, or fantasy play, or trick-or-treating, the boys, at least, are Storm Troopers or Darth Vader.  I grew up on Westerns, beginning with Roy Rogers and ending with the epic boredom of Bonanza.

There was once a small scar on my left cheek, installed there around 1954 when my little sister winged a cap pistol at me in a moment of fury over some insignificant offense of mine.  Those pot-metal cap pistols were held together with rivets, and the sixgun she threw at me had a loose one.    She was not much for dolls and the like.  But she was thrilled, at age 6, with her Cowgirl Outfit: skirt, western shirt, stetson, boots, and a sixgun.  I was equally thrilled to be packing heat and wearing a faux tooled leather belt with a big buckle.  Neither of us now remembers what I said to outrage her.  But it probably had something to do with girls not being real cowboys.

While they were supporting actors in Westerns, horses didn't figure much in my fantasy play.  How my sister felt about them when she was little, I don't know.  As a teenager, she had a friend who had horses, and she sometimes rode.  But she wasn't consumed with affection for them, as many teenaged girls are. My only experience with a real horse was when one stepped on my foot at summer camp when I was about 10.  We were in a riding rink of soft clay; I escaped with only a fright--and a subsequent lifelong mistrust of horses.

Just the same, I've always thought of my favorite cars as Trusty Steeds.  Take good care of them, and they'll take care of me.  This began with my first car and continues today with my Honda Civic Si.  At the end of a good road trip, I pat the dashboard and say "Good job, old girl.  Want a carrot... er... can I top-up your windshield washer fluid?"  (As I've said here before, my sister thinks about cars like she thinks about washing machines and hedge trimmers.  Is it inexpensive to buy, cheap to run, reliable, and easy to use?  If so, that's all she needs or wants to know.)

Jeremy Clarkson compared the Honda Civic Type R (the U.K. version of the Si) to a terrier.  He said that when you sit down in the driver's seat, the car begins running around your legs and doing cartwheels.  "Let's go, let's go, let's GO!"  That metaphor works for me too.

Two Honda Civic Si's at a track day.  No... wait... two Jack Russell Terriers on the beach with a ball.

Of course not all cars have made my Trusty Steed grade.  Some were just transportation.  Some annoyed me.  It was tempting to put them out of their misery, and me out of mine, when they broke down.  Some that broke down still achieved Honorary Terrier, if not Trusty Steed, status.  The 124 sedan, for example: I worried that it might have to be put down (and it did).  But it still got dashboard pats because it was a fun drive.  Cars with a dual personality are best.  On a road trip, you need a Trusty Steed.  Around town, you want a terrier.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

"Track Time" On The Dragon

"The Boys From Illinois" are already talking about our spring Dragon run.  As always, we're noodling the mix between tourism and Dragon passes.  This time, I'm inclined to make as many passes as I can, which I did in September too.

This is puzzling.  I'm not a competitive person (in the usual sense of the term) and I'm not a competitive driver (in the fast sense of the term).  I gave up high-speed autocrossing for both reasons: it seemed like a lot of effort for not much track time, and the stop-watches put me in the center of the bell curve for RX-7's.  We got about 15 minutes total track time, at best, in a typical day of HSAX.  And it was a full day: up early to get through tech, home after supper.  Talent aside, I needed to upgrade my brakepads, lines, and fluid to stop abusing my car.  Three laps (the normal practice run) takes a lot out of a daily-driven street car.  I don't miss HSAX and, in fact, enjoy the sociability and responsibility of corner-flagging more.

So why my monomania about Dragon passes?  Because, I've concluded, I'm competitive with myself.  The Dragon requires focus and concentration.  It's challenging to get 9 miles of switchbacks even close to right.  Then there is the feel of the thing: hills that load or unload the chassis, decreasing radius and double-apex bends.  Stringing together a sequence of 6-10 turns, done as well as you can, is extremely satisfying.

Speed isn't that important--the bends are tight.  You need to make allowances for traffic.  There are always faster drivers and equipment.  Running against a stopwatch or a bogey time doesn't enter my mind.  (Well... yes it does: under 14 minutes for an unobstructed pass...  ;-)  )  The Dragon is so tight that it's not hard on your car, especially if you slow down to cool the brakes at the end of a pass.

You can make passes all day long.  On your own schedule.  Wrung out or stressed-out?  Take a break for food, drink, people-watching, and gearhead talk.  When you're ready to focus and concentrate again, get after it again.  In my motorsports experience, there is nothing more satisfying than getting a Dragon pass mostly right.

True, there's the expense of getting to and from and staying near it.  But once you're there, it's 8 hours or more per day of free track time.  In good company.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Purdy Car, Purdy Picture

Aston Martin DB 4 Zagato

The short version: 3.7 liter, high compression, straight-six making 314 h.p., aluminum body, 100 lbs. lighter than the steel-bodied production car.  One way to think about the DB 4 Zagato is as an answer to the Ferrari 250 GT SWB Competizione, even as Ferrari was moving on to the 250 GTO.  It's just as beautiful, and in some ways reminiscent of the SWB.

The long version: