Formula 1, the triumph of greed

Bernie kills the golden goose ... There was once, in the early 1970's, a business man in his early forties with little real money but high ambition, a lover of motor racing, a former driver himself and latterly a manager of drivers. A man who seemed to love racing and those around it, not for wealth, for in those days (and, in truth, now) the easiest way in racing to earn a small fortune was to start with a large one, but for the sake of the competition, the thrill of the win, the constant need to go faster, higher, better. 45 years later, at age 84, Bernard Charles Ecclestone is the fourth richest man in Britain, worth US$ 4.5 Billion. The story of how he became so rich is not for here; along the way he owned a team and won championships, built good cars, hired good people and was part of the "garagiste's", the cabal of Anglo's and Anglo commonwealth racers who were such a thorn in the side of El Commendatore Enzo Ferrari. But somewhere along the journey from there to here, money seems to have became more important to Mr. E. than racing, much more important. Mr. E. is about to kill the golden goose, or perhaps it's Mr. E's employers, CVC Capital Partners, who seem to think that owning the commercial rites to Formula 1 means that they get paid exorbitant amounts and those that compete can take what they deign to hand out. Mr. E. has carefully and craftily played the egos of all involved over the years, pitting some against others, dividing and ultimately conquering; until now ... Now there is a crisis, two teams are in receivership, not necessarily unusual, teams have always come and gone, but there are three more seriously struggling with the costs of F1 and the seriously unequal returns. Bernie seems mostly un-fazed, apart from a rare slip admitting culpability, swiftly retracted and followed by a return to the hard line. Is CVC pulling strings, is Bernie a puppet, does someone know where the bodies are buried? All good questions with few public answers ... But all questions that will get asked and which are not necessarily good for a man who has been through a bribery and corruption trial and is rumored to be under investigation for tax avoidance. Bernie/CVC are about to kill the golden goose, the fans are finally tired of all the politics, the ratings are falling, interest is waning. What price the fourth richest man in Britain Bernie; in the words of John Lennon: "how do you sleep"?

The Big Price

As you probably know, 'Grand Prix', is French for 'Big Prize', today it should more correctly be known as the 'Big Price' ... In all of my (now considerable) lifetime, I have been a fan of Grand Prix, or more correctly, Formula 1 racing. Despite both of my parents' total disdain for the sport, and a complete lack of any form of transportation, I managed to attend my first of several British GP's at Silverstone in 1971. I paid for the ticket out of my 17 year old 'pocket money' and also managed to contribute to the 'petrol' cost for the ride down and back in a friend's Mini. My guess is that the complete trip probably cost in the order of 5 GBP or less, with admission probably 3 GBP. For my money we managed to negotiate the traffic jams and arrive (just) in time for the race, and then stand at the inside of Abbey curve while Jackie Stewart and the Tyrrell ran away from the field; finishing an easy winner from Ronnie Peterson's March and Emerson Fittipaldi's Lotus. For me the highlights of the race were a rare appearance of the Lotus 56B, 'wedge', turbine powered car (which only raced 3 times), with it's distinctive whine, and the thrilling, hair raising sound of the two works V12 Matra's passing by at full chat, the clear memory of which still gives me chills to this very day. As a side note, I have now seen the Lotus 56B twice in the last few years. It was displayed at the Goodwood festival of speed in 2012, the year that commemorated the 50th anniversary of Lotus. Then, this past week, I visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and Museum, and there it was again, displayed in a special exhibition of turbine powered cars. It's one of those strange coincidences in life, only made a little more strange that in my working life I have spent the vast majority of the last thirty-five years around the aviation version of the engine that powered that car, the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A turboprop engine. Which, in a roundabout way brings me to the present. If we take that 3 GBP general admission of 1971 and double it a generous 3 times, we end up with 24 GBP, or roughly $40 in today's money and look at what that would buy you today at the upcoming US Grand Prix in Austin TX, just 200 miles down Interstate 35 from here. The answer, unfortunately, is nothing; lowest raceday general admission is more than $150 which, by my math, is 4 times the equivalent 1971 price. So, for my 4X money, is the value better? Well that's a matter of perspective, certainly the track is much safer and the amenities are streets above the porta-potties, dirt spectator banks, endless traffic jams, muddy car parks and marginal food of 1971 Slverstone. But is the racing any better, probably not, it's the history of Formula 1 to be dominated by the best car, with few exceptions, that turn races into processions. Access to the cars and drivers today is nonexistent, even if you could get into the paddock, for the average spectator; whereas in 1971 a paddock pass was a modest incremental price, drivers were open, friendly and willing to chat, you could walk up to and touch the cars. And if you were to look at the cost of decent seats today ... well, as they say, OMG, this is a wealthy person's privilege only ... Today, as much as I find the idea of the hybrid engines technically exciting, they will never, ever replace the visceral thrill, of the screaming sound, of a French V12 passing by in a blue flash at 180 mph. Try it for yourself ... just Google 'Matra V12 sound', and listen to that glorious noise ... So, come Sunday November 2nd, I'll be watching this race, not from the stands at the Circuit of the Americas, but from the comfort of my living room ...

Cars and Coffee

Car-nuts ... It's now three months and 800 miles into my Seven life (and three months of neglect for this blog), and yesterday I took the opportunity to turn up at 'Cars and Coffee', the monthly car-nut gab-fest in North Dallas. The only theme is 'cars' and the love of them, so you get everything from the local drifting set with their tricked out Mitsu' Evo's to the 'too-rich-too-quick' guys with their Lambo's, tasteless watches the size of Rhode Island and silicon sister girlfriends'. It's held at a huge BMW dealership on the North Dallas tollway who, bless their soul, park their inventory on the grass and anywhere they can find space so as to leave several hundred spots open for we car nuts. There is a God, and I didn't need a televangelist to tell me ... The 25 mile ride over at 6:00 am, the early start necessary to get a decent parking spot, was somewhat surreal. I have never driven the Seven in the dark at 70 mph plus on the freeway and thankfully the eighteen wheeler traffic was sparse. I did encounter, unexpectedly (and all the more frustrating because everyone thought we were done with all of that), closures on East bound TX 114 (the 'DFW Connector'). This road, which used to be locally known, with good reason, as the 'funnel' was recently touted as being complete after three and a half years of pain. So to find the 'completed', and phenomenally improved, freeway was closed for 'paving and signage work' was not good for my blood pressure. Which was also not helped by the additional overly complex frontage road frustration of trying to find a way on to the freeway. Having said the above it is now in mid September and the weather continues to be ridiculously hot in North Texas this year (98 degrees F on Saturday); and so, despite the traffic issues, the early start actually ended up helping a lot. Once on to TX 114 though it was off to the races, which produced a big grin on the face of my soon to be twelve-year-old (who, by the by, has come to love roundabouts, in complete contrast to his mother, who loves the car but likes her Seven motoring to be sedate rides for coffee). The sensation of the warm wind whipping around us at speed, the surrounding darkness, the high-pitched tire whine on the concrete surface and the occasional flash of the tollway camera lights taking our rear-end view photograph for posterity all added to the sense of drama; truly surreal. The car meet' itself was great fun, the variety of cars was amazing and the people knowledgeable and friendly, even, surprisingly, the coffee was decent. Not knowing where to park we ended up opposite a bunch of Jeeps and adjacent to several classic muscle machines on one side and a friendly Stalker (V6 powered Seven knock-off) on the other. We were the only Caterham around as far as I could tell but by the time we decided to leave we had only walked about half of the parking lot, spending most of our time (courtesy of the 'soon-to-be-twelve-year-old'), around the Ferrari's, McLaren's, Lambo's and a singular Audi R8 that were parked in the reserved 'special area'. We did take a detour to the Porsche area (tasty), and the adjacent Lotus area. The latter was highlighted by a very pretty white Exige and an absolutely gorgeous 2007 limited edition Elise in the old Team Lotus JPS black and gold, known as the Elise Type 72D. This particular car I have actually seen before, as it is maintained by Jeff Sloan and the  boys at British Auto Specialists (it's a car I could definitely 'covet') and it's one of only 50 made. As noted, in between, there is anything and everything. A colleague of mine brought his bright orange BMW 2002 that isn't stock (but where it isn't doesn't matter); there were Beemer's, Vipers, Tesla's, Bently's, Corvette's, day-glow Camaro's, Mustang's and Nissan GT-R's but no (to the great dismay of the child) Panoz's. There were Low riders and kits, including several Cobra's and an absolutely perfect copy of an Austin Healey 3000 on a Mustang chassis that had me completely fooled. Classic VW Beetle's, VW vans, Mini's, Jeeps, Land Rover's Aston Martin's and American muscle, both restored and in-the-raw, were all around. A veritable feast for the car lover with the only requirement an early rise on a Saturday ... The ride back in daylight was less surreal, but none the less enjoyable and, to say the least, much fun was had by all. If you live in the Dallas area, or are visiting on the first Saturday of every month, are a  lover of cars and car people, then Cars and Coffee is highly recommended ...

Life after 7

When you are the niche producer of a fifty year old product, what do you do for an encore?  Once before, in the mid 90's, Caterham had attempted to find the answer to this question. Led by Graham Nearn Caterham would have loved to produce a mid engined monocoque chassis, Nearn was known to have favored something in the style of the Lotus Eleven. Unfortunately, time, money and resources dictated that a modified 7 chassis be used, paired with a new fully enclosed body. This project, known as the 21, was rapturously received by the motoring press, sadly less so by the buying public. It's unfortunate fate was to be introduced into a world suddenly awash with cars of similar ambitions, cars such as the MGF, BMW Z3 and, perhaps most difficult of all, the Lotus Elise. From its debut at the 1994 Birmingham Motor Show to its final demise in 1999 only 50 cars were ever built, the last one sitting uncompleted for several years until claimed by the car's chief chassis designer, Jez Coates, becoming his personal transportation. Today Caterham is a much different organization, one driven by the vision of Tony Fernandes and his desire to leverage the Caterham Formula 1 Team into an expanded car business. The first attempt is another niche vehicle, designed by Lola for Caterham, the SP300R is more LeMans prototype than 7 relation, the only connection being the use of the  supercharged power-train of the 500 Superlight. This is a dedicated track day car with no pretense of ever being roadworthy. Only 25 will be produced per year with at least half of the production going to use in a dedicated one mark race series in Europe. But, on the horizon, looms the children of the new agreement between Caterham and Renault to produce affordable fun sports cars for the masses. One can only wait and see with anticipation to find out what Caterham will become when it grows up. There is life beyond 7.  

2013 Eve

As I write this it's New Year's eve, and about to be 2013, the year the Mayan's (not!) said would never come; I'm glad I avoided falling off the end of the world or perishing in some major astrophysical cataclysm. Truth be told if they had been right I would have been severely 'upset' for the world to end before the Seven arrived. I may still fall off the fiscal cliff but I'll be in good company and then it will be open season on politicians, about time too ... So, in the spirit of new beginnings, new year's resolutions etc., here are some of my predictions for 2013: The Seven will finally be delivered, despite the continued silence from Leafield. The fiscal cliff will turn into the fiscal ditch. Texas will vote 'no' to secession from the Union, but it will be close. The UK will vote 'no' to secession from the EU, but it will be close. Scotland will vote 'no' to secession from the UK when they realize they will have to fund their own social benefits. Despite huge efforts gun control will once again sink on the rock of the NRA. Rangers will win the Scottish third division. Liverpool will not win the Barclay's Premier League. Have a wonderful 2013.

The number 7, part 1

Seven, as we know, is considered a lucky number, but in motor racing it has a chequered history, so to speak ... In the motor racing world of the UK in the early sixties the number 7 was well known as the chosen number of England's great white racing hope, (now Sir) Stirling Moss. It could be said of Sir Stirling that he was not the luckiest driver who ever challenged for the world championship. Having finished second four times (once by a single point) and third three times Moss is frequently known as 'the greatest driver never to win the world championship'. He was certainly driving number 7 on the fateful day of April 23rd, 1962 when he suffered a near fatal accident at Goodwood in Rob Walker's privateer Lotus 19. While trying to un-lap himself, after losing time in the pits with gearbox problems, he was forced off the road onto wet grass and hit the barriers at high speed and without seat belts (which, believe it or not, were not mandatory at the time). He was cut from the wreckage and unconscious in hospital for a month and temporarily paralyzed on his left side for six more. Upon his eventual attempted return to racing the following year he decided he did not have the car control he once had and chose to retire; here is a link to his own account of the crash: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2226334/Sir-Stirling-Moss-82-relives-horrific-crash-50-years-ago-end-career.html The Seven car came by he number honestly, if not directly. Chapman originally allocated the 'Mark 7' identifier to a semi-stillborn 1954 project commissioned by the French Clairmonte brothers. As it happened the brothers took possession of a partially completed chassis and finished it themselves, calling it the Clairmonte special, which left an open number in the Lotus sequence. Chapman moved on with the Chapman / Costin designed Mark 8, and then the very successful Marks 9 and 10. By 1955 the true predecessor to the 7, the Mark 6 had ceased production after more than 100 cars had been built and delivered. Lotus' major seller became the Mark 11, the superb small sports racer, a few of which were delivered for road use but which was largely aimed at, and more suitable for, the racing market. Chapman, realizing that there was pent-up demand for a simple, light road car that could also be raced, a true successor to the Mark 6, penned the 7. In many ways the 7 is an amalgamation of the Mark 6 and the ideas seen in the Eleven, a legend was truly born. The first 7 was delivered to well-known Lotus racer Edward Lewis in September 1957 and the rest is history ...  

Jules-Albert de Dion

Comte Jules-Albert De Dion was a French Noble and founder of the automobile manufacturer De Dion-Bouton. Although the name of the manufacturer has long since passed into history the name de Dion has been immortalized in a suspension system used in a few select performance cars. De Dion, however, was not the inventor of the suspension system that bears his name; that was invented in 1894, for use in the companies' Steam Tricycles, by the co founder of the De Dion-Bouton company Charles Trepardoux. As a concept the de Dion system, sometimes known as a de Dion tube, is a step above the solid (or 'live') rear axle, swing axles (ask an original VW Beetle or Chevelle owner) or the Hotchkiss drive, but is generally considered inferior to a true independent rear suspension (IRS). The system typically consists of a tubular beam that connects the two rear uprights and keeps the rear wheels parallel, as the tube carries no drive torque the system is sometimes referred to as a 'dead axle'. The system employs a chassis mounted differential and drive shafts and is located by various links. Its major advantage over a live axle is a significant reduction in the unsprung weight of the suspension due the chassis mounting of the differential and elimination of any requirement for universal or constant velocity joints in the main drive shaft. This gives a major improvement in handling if engineered correctly without the complexity of a fully independent rear suspension. As originally conceived by Chapman the Seven had a live axle and for many years after the Caterham assumption of the program this was sourced from the old Morris company; it was the unit used in the eminently forgettable Morris Ital, a car so bad it was sold by Morris into license production in Iran. In late 1983 it became clear that production of this unit was going to cease and several management and engineering personnel, in true British tradition, discussed their choices at a local pub, the King & Queen. The production live axles available that could conceivably fit within the dimensions required, even when modified, were minimal; and not promising from an engineering standpoint. Those present pondered the inevitable conclusion that to continue production of the Seven they would have to abandon the live axle. Adoption of a true independent rear suspension was discussed, and several present pushed for the idea, but the consensus was that development of an IRS would be a major undertaking for such a small company. One of the engineers, Reg Price, suggested the de Dion solution and, as he had worked out that the cost of such a system would be around 100 Pounds Sterling less than a true IRS, the idea was agreed by all present over a pint of beer. There were some historical precedents for the de Dion, some early Lotus Sevens had been fitted with the system and some racing Sevens had been converted, so the idea seemed to fit. Price and another engineer spent several months developing the system and the first production Caterham with a de Dion rear suspension debuted at the 1984 Birmingham Motor Show. The system is now standard on all Caterham's except the Superlight CSR, and certainly works very well, ask anyone who has driven the car. So the name of a French Count, who didn't invent a 120 year old suspension system, lives on in a Caterham ...