Tony Fernandes and the fine art of leverage

As I've noted before Tony Fernandes is an interesting character, and one who seems to be very clever at cross leveraging the money spent by his various businesses in support of other businesses and ventures in his portfolio. A classic example of this is the 'Air Asia' shirt sponsorship (Air Asia is Fernandes' Kuala Lumpur based low cost airline) that is carried by Queens Park Rangers, his London UK Barclays Premier League soccer team. Based on the TV exposure that the Premier League receives every week, as the most successful soccer league in the world, this is undoubtedly great advertising for the airline and keeps the sponsorship money within the Fernandes empire, very smart. But there is another and, to my mind, more interesting example of using leverage, this one using business connections with third party companies outside of this cosy family: A review of the current Air Asia fleet and aircraft order status shows than in operation today they have 101 Airbus A320 aircraft and a further 79 of this type on order. In addition, Air Asia placed a new order in June 2011 for 200 Airbus A320neo aircraft ('neo' stands for 'new engine option') for a significant fleet expansion. Ultimately the fleet will total nearly 400 aircraft. By any stretch of the imagination these are very big numbers, with hundreds of Billions of dollars spent and committed for these airframes and the their engines. Most of the aircraft in the existing Air Asia fleet were ordered years ago but for the June 2011 fleet expansion order there were two competing airframes under consideration, the Airbus A320neo and the Boeing 737 MAX. Both of these aircraft were derived from existing airframes but improved with new systems and new engines. As you can see Air Asia chose to continue with the Airbus product despite strong competition from Boeing. For most commercial aircraft currently available the manufacturers offer the airline their choice of two or more competing engines, usually from different engine manufacturers, and these deals are typically signed separately from the airframe. For both of the Airbus aircraft, the A320 of the existing fleet and A320neo there are, as expected, two choices of engine: For the original A320 the choice is either the GE/SNECMA CFM56 engine (SNECMA is GE's French joint venture partner for this engine type) or the International Aero Engines (IAE) V2500. For the A320neo the choice is for the GE/SNECMA LEAP X engine or the Pratt & Whitney PW1000G. When faced with these choices, for the existing fleet and for the new aircraft, Air Asia chose the GE/SNECMA manufactured engine  ... so, despite the size of the orders gaining them some leverage on pricing, Air Asia has still made an enormous financial commitment to both Airbus and GE, and this is where it gets interesting. Now let us cut to the Caterham F1 team, a team crying out for major sponsorship to help defray the very considerable cost of competing in this high profile and extremely popular global competition, and the very visible sponsorship carried by the cars at the twenty different races each year ... Based on the QPR example above it's hardly surprising that Air Asia's name is prominent as the title sponsor on the cars (see the 'Goodwood' post below), but can it be a coincidence that three of the other major sponsor names appearing on the cars are EADS (Airbus' majority owner) Airbus itself and GE? See for yourself in this photograph: www.caterhamf1.com/gallery/2012/studio-photoshoot,-september-2012#image-(18) I will happily, and somewhat rhetorically, leave answering the question posed above to you, good reader, using what I am certain is your own impeccable judgement ... I suppose it's true to say that those major corporate marketing dollars do have to be spent somewhere, so why not spend them on sponsoring a F1 team. It is, after all, a competition that has enormous visibility, global exposure and is as high tech' as competition gets, not really a bad thing for the makers of airplanes and jet engines to be associated with. Of course one could argue that the still relatively new Caterham F1 team, which today is not really competitive and runs around close to the back of the field, is perhaps not the optimum choice of team for GE and Airbus to sponsor; and that would be a point difficult to argue against. But then maybe, just maybe, Caterham may have a little leverage  ... quid pro quo.

The US Grand Prix, take 2

So, despite my decision to sample the delights of Orlando due to what I believed to be excessively high pricing, 265,000 people decided I was an idiot and that the fleshpots of Austin and F1 racing were the place to be last weekend. The really good news being that the track was universally hailed as something special, the organization exemplary and the race itself being a hard fought battle between McLaren and Red Bull drivers Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. Not the greatest of races but a solid finish nontheless for the Caterham boys, both drivers finishing a lap down from the winner in 17th and 18th places, but at least progress from their grid positions of 21st and 22nd. Meanwhile here in Orlando, while the F1 boys were qualifying on Saturday, we were taking in the sights of the Harry Potter section of Universal Studios, including one of the better ones below: On Sunday while Lewis was hunting down and finally passing Seb' we were wandering the back lots of Disney Hollywood Studios, getting nauseous on the Star Wars 3D ride and politely declining my wife and son's invitation to join them on the 'Tower of Terror'. I'm a wimp when it comes to rides, except in a fast car ...

The US Grand Prix

This weekend is the first event at the brand new 'Circuit of the America's' outside of Austin Texas, it happens to be the return of the F1 Grand Prix Circuit to the USA after a five year hiatus. For some reason F1 has never quite caught on the US and has migrated around the country to several different venues even when it was a regular event. The USGP has twice spent extended periods at Indianapolis, spent many years at Watkins Glenn NY and has shown up in such diverse places as Detroit and Dallas over the years; what F1 fan can forget an exhausted Nigel Mansell pushing his Lotus across the finish line in downtown Dallas with the ambient temperature hovering around 100 F. Austin represents a new opportunity for the race to take root at a state of the art facility adjacent to a city with some serious party chops. Austin may not be New Orleans, and 6th Street may be Bourbon St 'light', but there is no place like the Big Easy and Austin comes as close a second as any other city around, with the possible exception of Vegas. Knowing that the teams would probably fly in via DFW or Houston I decided to email Tony Fernandes at Caterham F1 and suggest that if he was coming through DFW he might want to stop by Jeff Sloan's British Auto Specialists, my handy dandy Caterham Dealer. I got a very nice email back from Tom Webb the Director of Communications for the team who very politely informed me that time was at a premium and not to get my hopes up. I didn't, and I'm glad that Tom let me down easily, maybe next year ... in the meantime he supplied me with a nice hi-res version of the photo at the top of the blog and permission to use it, thanks Tom, much appreciated. But, to get back to Austin, the original plan was to go to the race, but after nearly having a heart attack when I saw the package prices we decided to go and spend our hard earned vacation at Disney World instead, so Friday we catch the 'oh dark thirty' flight to Orlando. I guess Bernie Ecclestone and CVC Partners strike again, although, to be perfectly honest, the hotel prices are also in the stratosphere ... very, very disappointing ... I recognize that the not insignificant cost of building the circuit needs to be recovered, but it seems to me that if you really want the race to catch on in this huge and important market, why price it so high? Peace Bernie, you will obviously die a very rich man ... but even you can't take it with you.

The 37 year dream

As a confessed gadget man I have been an avid photographer since my first years of University, when a friend got me hooked on the creative possibilities and convinced me to buy an SLR camera with my limited funds. I used some of the money I earned during summer vacation and purchased a Yashica TL Electro, one of the first reasonably priced SLR's with through the lens metering. That camera lasted me seven years until I came to the US and purchased an Olympus OM1 that I ended up using for 20 years until the digital revolution came along, and these days I'm a Canon and Sony owner ... As it happens, after 40 years of taking photographs, some things do eventually sink in and my technique is now fairly decent. It gets me asked to do the occasional wedding (which I politely refuse, as who wants to screw up the shots of the one special day in a woman's life) and various other things such as family shots etc. Happy to oblige, I'm not a professional, don't expect too much, etc etc. Recently a colleague at work, who is also a 'petrol' head, asked me if I would do a photo shoot with him and his new car. Having never shot a car before and knowing that the car in question was a brand new and very special Corvette ZO7 Carbon Custom, I immediately said yes, didn't even hesitate; you can get a 'do over' with cars, not with weddings. Below is my favorite shot from that session, quite proud of it actually, which took place at a local Country Club. They were kind enough to allow us a couple of hours close to the 18th green, of course it didn't hurt that my colleague is a member ... It's a handsome car, and for my colleague, as I learned today, this car is a dream he's had since 1975, a 37 year dream. In the end we didn't need a 'do over', the weather, the setting and the light of the golden hour all came together in perfect harmony. Even my technique didn't fail me for once ... Well, at 37 years he's still got eight to go to catch up ... hope you like the shot.

Remembrance Day

Today is Veterans day in the US, in the UK it is known and observed as Remembrance day. As most know the date of 11th of November is the date in 1918 on which the Armistice was signed which effectively ended the First World War, the 'war to end all wars', in fact, as is also well known, the signing took place in the 'eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month'. This date has since become universally accepted as the date on which we celebrate the sacrifices of those that laid down their lives on our behalf in all wars. In the UK, as with most things of historical import, there are numerous rituals and traditions surrounding the observance of this day. The first and most obvious is the wearing of artificial Poppies in the weeks leading up to November 11th. The Poppy was abundant in the fields surrounding Flanders, in what is now Belgium, the scene of one of the defining trench warfare battles of the World War 1. Made popular by the poem 'in Flanders Fields', written in 1915 by the Canadian Physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae; the Poppy's blood red color was felt to appropriately symbolize the blood spilled by the youth of the country in those very fields. The artificial Poppies are sold on street corners to raise money for veterans causes, and are a major source of funding for the primary veterans organization; the British Legion. As in most parts of the world the day itself in the UK is full of special services, marching bands and the laying of wreaths at local and National war memorials, followed, as the clocks strike eleven, by the observation of two minutes of absolute silence; the two minutes preceded by the plaintiff sounds of a solo bugle sounding out the 'Last Post', the silence ended by the firing of ceremonial cannon. The tradition of the 'two minute silence' was first observed in 1919, the year after the end of the war and, in the words of the Manchester Guardian at the time, it produced an instantaneous effect: The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect. The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition. Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of 'attention'. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still ... The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain ... And the spirit of memory brooded over it all. On the closest Saturday to the 11th, a memorial service, known as the 'Festival of Remembrance', is held at the Royal Albert Hall that culminates in thousands of Poppy leaves falling onto the audience in silence. One of the highlights of the night is the recitation of the 'Ode of Remembrance', an excerpt from Laurence Binyon's 1914 poem 'For the Fallen'. The words, spoken over an eerie quiet from the crowd, evoke a sad melancholy rarely felt at other times and places: They went with songs to the battle, they were young. Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow. They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted, They fell with their faces to the foe. They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them. And the blood red Poppies fall. As the son of a WW2 veteran, who emerged from the war severely injured and a changed man: I will remember.

Gadget Man

My wife and youngest child, when discussing my liking for electronics of all kinds, affectionately refer to me as 'gadget man', a moniker I protest (weakly) as being harsh but secretly accept as undoubtedly being spot on. Although, having said that, it is also accurate to say that in the case of the said youngest child, he seems, even at eleven years of age, to have inherited the 'gadget' gene and has frequently been referred to as 'gadget man junior'. We live in an age when new and fantastic gadgets of all kinds appear on an increasingly frequent basis and, much to my delight, the Seven has given me ample opportunity to explore whole new gadget realms. Thankfully, we also live in an age where gadgets are obtainable at ridiculously low relative cost due to the combined magic of Moore's law and the boundless enthusiasm of the Chinese government to supply abundant non-Union labor at abusively low cost. When I do finally get the Seven (any day now) my intent is for it to be my 'Friday Car' (when it's not raining, of course) and to use it as an occasional 'track day' car, there being ample opportunity to do so in North Texas. Thinking about 'track days' and enhancing the fun led me on a quest to find the perfect gadgets to record my lousy driving for posterity. These will include one or more 'Go Pro Hero' cameras to record my every mistake in full (and incredibly clear) 1080p HD and a lap timer / GPS unit to go with them, just so history will be able to know with an accuracy of 100th of a second how slow I was. The ultimate gadget these days is the iPhone and, of course, 'there's an app for that', which in my case happens the be 'Harry's Lap Timer'. This is an absolutely incredible piece of work that comes, for the grand price of $15, pre-programmed with track maps of most of the free world's racetracks (are there racetracks in the non-free world, in fact, where is the non-free world?). Amazingly my local tracks, Eagles Canyon and Motorsport Ranch, are already there, just sitting, waiting and goading me on ... http://www.gps-laptimer.de The app also will take input from an external GPS unit with a 5 Hz update rate for high accuracy via a Bluetooth connection, and can read data from from an ODB2 connection, also via Bluetooth. For those of you out there who are gadget challenged, ODB2 is the auto industry standard interface to the computer that runs your car engine, so the app has continuous access to engine speed, temperature, throttle position and all of the vital parameters. Absolutely perfect, a gadget that leads to opportunities for more gadgets; now I just have to work out with Jeff Sloan and his boys how to mount all of this stuff cleanly and professionally. This is all so very, very cool, really, honest, believe me ... All in all the Seven will have its share of gadgets, I am sooooo happy ...

Bonfire Night

We British have a wonderful tradition, revered by adults and children alike, but with a dark origin that few remember during the fun. November 5th is known affectionally by all in the UK as 'Bonfire Night', perhaps more correctly (if 'correct' is applicable to a non official holiday) as Guy Fawkes night. Bonfire night commemorates the exposure of the 'Gunpowder Plot' on November 5th 1605, a plan by the pro Catholic forces in England to blow up the Houses of Parliament and restore a Catholic King to the Throne. The unfortunate conspirator, caught guarding the amassed barrels of gunpowder, was the aforementioned Guy (sometimes known as 'Guido') Fawkes. November 5th that year was the day of the opening of Parliament (always attended by the Monarch) and Fawkes' job was to light the fuze to the barrels of gunpowder concealed within a room below Parliament and then escape across the Thames before participating in the assassination of the remainder of the Royal family. Betrayed by an anonymous letter and a general feeling of unease at Court; King James ordered Sir Thomas Knyvel to search Parliament and, in the early hours of November 5th Fawkes was discovered along with the concealed barrels and detained. Interrogated at the Tower using progressively more brutal torture Fawkes gave up his co-conspirators names over a period of days and they were duly captured and suffered the dire consequences. Fawkes himself was due to be hung on January 31st 1606 but before the hanging and subsequent mutilation, he jumped from the scaffold and broke his neck, thus avoiding the agony that would have surely been his to endure. Since then November 5th has been celebrated by building bonfires and burning an effigy (a 'Guy') on the bonfire, accompanied by a firework display. Things are not as they were when I grew up in the 60's. Then, the bonfires were largely unregulated and local affairs, they might be for a house, a street or an 'estate' (a subdivision in US speak). Back then kids would construct a 'Guy' and sit on street corners in shopping centers with their effigy and beg for money, which was then used to purchase fireworks. Fireworks could be had at most 'tobacconist' or 'newsagent' stores and were pretty freely available to all children in their teen years. This insanity finally succumbed to some common sense, but only after too many children lost fingers or eyes when playing stupid games of dare. Today, 'bonfire night' and the bonfires and fireworks that go with it are largely organized affairs, but still much fun. There's something about the warmth of burning wood, the smell of autumn dampness and the sight of a dozen bottle rockets fizzing skyward simultaneously that brings a smile to your face. What, you might ask, has this got to do with a Caterham Seven? Nothing really, but it is November 5th.

Goodwood

This summer I managed to spend a day at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, an amazing experience for any 'petrol' head, especially one who loves fast cars; and what petrol head doesn't like fast cars. Goodwood is a country house and estate in the south of England, it's situated a few miles north of the beautiful coastal town of Chichester and is the home of motor racing fanatic Lord March. Every year, twice a year, Lord March opens up the grounds of the house, and the adjoining racetrack / airfield to two wonderful if distinctly different celebrations of the motor car. The FOS takes place in late June or early July and focuses on all things fast, and especially all things racing. Here you will find F1 cars old and (almost) new, Le Mans cars, Touring Cars, NASCAR racers, Rally cars, motorcycles, and anything else that seems appropriate. Along with acres of exhibitions from all of the major and minor manufacturers that consider their wares to be worthy of display in such august company. The second weekend of festivity takes place in September and is known as the Goodwood Revival. The Revival is a celebration of pre and immediate post second world war motor racing, complete with many attendees turning up in period dress. While not really my style or my passion the Revival has its own fanatical supporters and needs no help from me for its success. Every year the FOS enjoys a featured 'theme', and this year the theme was 60 years of Lotus; right up my ally. A host of F1 Lotus' from five decades were there, many in running condition and most took the requisite blast up the hill past the house at speed, their engine noise lingering in my head long after they had faded to nothing. Unfortunately, while the Caterham F1 team made an appearance with last year's car and driver Heikki Kovalainen, the Seven manufacturing side didn't turn up ... oh well, maybe next year. The shot above was taken as Heikki exited the F1 paddock, which is situated halfway up the hill, prior to going down to the start before his first run of the day up the hill. As you can see he's looking right at me, so he obviously knew I was there ... There's a lot of walking around and be prepared for mud if the weather is wet (what, wet in England!), but for a 'Petrol' or 'Gear' head, the FOS is nirvana, most highly recommended. http://www.goodwood.co.uk/home.aspx

What’s in a name

Tony Fernandes is an interesting character ... He is the Malaysian born co-founder of Air Asia, the low cost airline based out of Kuala Lumpor, he is also the principal of Tune Group, owner of Queens Park Rangers the English Premier League team and, more to the point, owner of both Caterham and the associated Formula 1 racing team. The association has an interesting story attached to it: When Colin Chapman owned and operated Lotus the racing team was a separate entity known as 'Team Lotus'. After his death the car company 'Lotus Cars' was sold by the family and passed through several hands, however, the rights to the name 'Team Lotus' remained with the family. When Fernandes started his racing team several years ago he persuaded the familly to allow him to use the name and the team ran as Team Lotus. Unfortunately, the current owners of Lotus Cars had similar F1 ambitions and a civil lawsuit ensued regarding the use of the Lotus name. This culminated in the car company sponsoring the Genii (former Renault) team under the name of Lotus and Fernandes executing plan B. Fernandes had purchased Caterham during 2011 and for the 2012 season changed the team name to Caterham F1, some would say entirely appropriately: racing begat the Seven, Seven begat Caterham, Caterham begat racing. The circle of life ...

What’s in a number

This I still cannot really believe. The license plate (actually individual letters and numbers) attached to the front grille of the Seven in the Prisoner was: KAR 120C. In Texas, for around 51weeks of the year, you can order vanity plates but you are restricted to a combination of six letters or numbers. Now, I must confess that I spent a lot of time thinking about some possible combinations of six letters: NOT A NO (not a number) was one that came to mind ... you'll understand if you've watched the Prisoner ..., another was NOT NO 6 etc.; but seven letters always seemed to have more potential, and there was always that ultimate KAR 120C seven letter combination out there. Anyway, at some point in early summer I noticed that the vanity plate web site has examples of seven letter plates but the interactive search box will only allow you to enter six letters. So I decide to give them a call ... The nice man on the help line explains that once a year they run a week long special where you can order seven letter plates. He tells me to sign up for the news letter which they email to you and it will tell me when I can go on line and try for seven letters. He even checks availability and confirms that KAR 120C, is still available. In my usual 'glass half empty' way I am convinced that I will either a) miss the special, or b) the hordes of Seven owning Prisoner fanatics living in Texas will figure this out before me, and when time comes it will be long gone ... A month ago the special ran and seven letters for a Seven was possible ... To my everlasting amazement, KAR 120C was still available (where did all those Texas Prisoner fans / Seven owners go); I'm now the proud owner of a plate that I, and about three others in Texas, will understand; and I can't wait to put it on the car. Oh, and as the plate has nowhere to fit on the front ("yes, but really Officer, don't you see, it would block the grille"), does anyone know how to attach plastic letters to a Seven grille?