MMR Blog

What Are They Thinking?

Posted on September 30, 2010 Comments (0)

That story follows. Recently, I received correspondence challenging my assumptions from a man who has attended the LeMans 24 Hours eighteen times and has a different view. If you have a thought on the subject, chime in.

The 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans. Long considered the premier long distance race, The 24 Hours of Le Mans, run by the Automobile Club du Ouest (ACO) can also be the most frustrating race in which to participate. Over the years, the rules set out by the ACO have often been subject to different interpretation and capricious application by its officials. The stories of past manufacturer battles with the organizers are legend.

To the French, Le Mans represents an opportunity for French cars and or/drivers to win for the "Glory of France". The French Peugeot team is a legitimate contender and historically the ACO have not been above "setting" or "interpreting" rules to help the home teams.

This year, the German Audi won their tenth overall victory in an exciting race that saw French Peugeot finish 13 seconds behind after 24 hours of racing. Yet despite the closeness of the racing in the LMP (Le Mans Prototype) classes, because LMP cars are so physically similar, many feel they lack the appeal of the familiar GT class. The two GT classes for "production" cars featured familiar names such as Corvette, Porsche, Ferrari, Lotus, Aston Martin and others.

Corvette won in both the GTE Pro and the GTE Am classes. A wonderful result achieved against stiff competition.

Originally, LeMans was all about factories bringing their modified street cars to LeMans in order to win and thereby sell more cars. When specially built LeMans cars began winning against the street production cars, a second class was developed for low production, purported "prototypes", of cars to come. Once beautiful expressions of the pure racing cars, the science of aerodynamics has determined the similar missile shapes which all prototypes now share, and which some find less than attractive.

Obliged to chose, racing fans would probably prefer the familiar GT cars over the Prototypes. None-the-less, the Protypes are exciting to watch and do have a fan following so they race on in a world-wide series of endurance events for their type of car. It should be noted that the French don't have a competitive GT car.

The 8.5 mile Le Mans circuit is occupied by four different driver/car classes. 56 cars begin the race. The largest group of which, GTE -Am (Amateur) for Production based GT cars (18) is the slowest. The second largest class (17) is LMP-1 or Le Mans Prototype driven by the best long distance drivers in the world. This is the fastest class. LMP-1 cars qualified at 3 minutes, 25.7 seconds per lap. The final qualifier, in a GT car was 46.8 seconds slower. This is a massive difference.

For years it has been argued that the reason for many of the crashes at Le Mans is the speed differential between the "prototype" and the "production" cars. Only 27 cars were listed as finishers and the GTE-Am car was lapped 53 times by the winning LMP-1 car. Yet the winning car's real rival was never lapped and was only 13 seconds behind it.

85% of a LeMans lap is taken at full throttle and in each of the accidents that spectacularly destroyed the Audi LMP-1 cars, a GTE was involved. GTE cars are not slow, but the closing speed differential on the straights can easily be as much as 80 MPH!

Into this consistent maelstrom, the ACO, has created a new class; The GTE-Am class for "amateurs".

While amateurs, those racing in this class were certainly "qualified" and experienced drivers. An American Team driving a Ford GT III actually finished third (a podium placement) in the GTE-Am class. Driven by well known amateur David Murray and by the husband and wife team of Andrea and David Robertson, they are to be commended.

However, despite their prior experience, the physics remain and they were driving in a dangerous situation for which they could never have prepared to the same extent that professionals prepare. The two GTE's that crashed with Audis were driven by professionals and in at least one case, were not responsible for the accident.

Racing was not ever meant to be a totally safe endeavor. Those participating know that. However, the responsibility of the governing bodies and race organizers is to provide a set a rules and an environment where competition can take place in as fair and safe a manner as possible. In not addressing these issues today, the ACO do a great disservice to the sport. What do they need to have happen before they act? In the wrong political atmosphere, a catastrophic crash involving spectators could result in either dramatic changes to the track, and therefore the essence of the race, or its complete cancellation. Either of which would be a huge loss to motorsports.

At LeMans, in 2011, Audi driver Alan McNish made a mistake. He, the other competitors involved and the photographers nearby were exceptionally fortunate. Continued good luck to all.

Wants and Needs

Posted on September 3, 2010 Comments (0)

A recent motorcycle tour of Nova Scotia allowed me sufficient helmet-time to separate things that are important to "men of a certain age" into needs and wants. Starting at the top, we have sex, beer, coffee and restrooms.


Coffee... restrooms.

I was travelling with five long-time riding friends, and, although each of us prioritizes differently, the group dynamic really sets the agenda. Each of us more or less conforms. Restrooms quickly establish themselves as the top need.

God has endowed the men in our family with oversized bladders. He may have been less generous with some of the other equipment, but in the bladders department we are good. Our coat of arms depicts an oversize bladder tanning on a field of something yellow, possibly snow.

As a group, we stop quite regularly and, to me, that breaks the flow, if that's the word I want, of the ride. Some long distance riders use catheters to relieve themselves, but that seems messy and dangerous, particularly for the riders behind and dodging the splash. So, in the first few days, as we establish a rhythm, we stop more often.



That brings us to the second great need, coffee! The Government of Nova Scotia apparently has decreed that on all the roads on which Americans travel, coffee and donuts must be available as frequently as public restrooms or every 162 feet, whichever comes first. No one in our group drinks decaf. Our leader drinks double-espressos. Trust me, both our riding pace and heart rates pick up when his lighter liquid burden is mated to a double-espresso. That's good for about 45 minutes, and then we are back to just above the speed limit and looking for the next Tim Horton's Donut Shop.

Road Trip

View from the road

Someone famously stated that men think about sex every eighteen seconds. I won't dispute that.  However, there is a mountainous 42 mile stretch of steep, twisty, up and down seaside road between Sugar Hill and Cheticamp, which, when ridden with vigor, can make you forget sex and, in spots, even bladder control. But once you stop at the French Coffee Shop on the other side for a double espresso, it all comes back. Feeling thankful to be alive and sex have a lot in common. Neither happens often enough or for long. The days of simply looking at a young woman, having a few beers and then a roll in the hay are long past, if they really happened at all. Look as we might, younger women don't see us. But we all look.  At one point we passed an attractive hitch-hiking woman holding up a sign indicating her destination. At the next coffee stop, once the mandatory male remarks were made about her obvious attributes and our preferred destination for her, someone asked who had seen the burly bearded guy sitting on the roadside behind her. No one else had! Who says men can't focus?

Which brings us to our most accessible want, beer. Beer replenishes natural nutrients expended in riding, makes us feel better, and makes us far more attractive to the only members of the opposite sex to whom we are not transparent. Hookers.

Wanting beer also makes us guessed it, restrooms!

In Praise of Older Cars!

Posted on July 8, 2010 Comments (0)

Two weeks ago, on a very cool New England evening, I had dinner with a new friend who has a collection of sixties era sports cars. Which, I asked him, did you drive tonight?

Amelia Island Christian Delbert Photography

He told me had his older Ferrari coupe parked in the lot. Nice, I said, don’t you have a modern car? No, he said, I have a modern truck for winter transportation.

I know him to be a collector of Fifties and Sixties sport cars but I was curious. Why not a modern sports car? Because, he replied, they are very complex and when you begin to have problems, they are very expensive to repair. Besides, he said, I don’t think they have an upside. In twenty years time the cars I now have will still be repairable. And I can do much of the work myself with the tools I currently own.

Manufacturers are obligated by law to supply parts for ten years from the date of manufacture. In order to protect their dealer service network, some manufacturers are known to make computer diagnostic programs difficult for the aftermarket to access. But after ten years, the dealer who can no longer get factory components, even with access to the computer diagnostics, is also shut out of the business. Where does that leave the car owner? Manufacturers will not let their customers down simply because the law says they can. That’s not good business and it is reasonable to expect that they will supply parts for a longer period. That is good business as anyone, with an old Ferrari can testify. But the parts won’t be inexpensive and at some point they could run out. When that happens, the traditional secondary source, the aftermarket, may not be able to supply.

My friend’s point here is not that computer equipped cars are bad, quite the contrary. We could never enjoy the power or convenience and safety features we have in our cars today without them. But for the most part, electronic components are not repairable. The factories fight to make their parts proprietary; that allows them to control price and availability. Aftermarket manufactures are loathe to reverse engineer and hi-end car computer for a comparatively low volume application. So, if your are considering the purchase of an eleven year old supercar you must ask yourself a few basic questions about who will repair it and where they will find electronic parts.

What are your thoughts?


Indy 500:Sunday in Indianapolis

Posted on June 10, 2010 Comments (0)

There is more to the Indy story than Dario and Danica.


94th Indianapolis 500 Trophy Presentation

INDIANAPOLIS - MAY 31:  Dario Franchitti of Scotland, driver of the #10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara Honda, poses with his wife Ashley Judd and their dogs on the yard of bricks during the 94th Indianapolis 500 Trophy Presentation at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 31, 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

The Indy 500 was run on Sunday and the packed grandstands and pre-race pomp puts lie to the oft expressed feeling that the event is now only a shadow of its former self.

This is still apple pie and the homeland. Never mind that only 9 of the 33 competitors for the huge payday are American.  As to the field, an argument could be made that in the history of the race, the number of real contenders in the 33 car starting field has not really changed.  What may have changed are the number of inexperienced  drivers who qualified for this year’s race, and the nature of the race itself.

Indy has always been a huge payday for oval racers.  In days past, journeymen and winning racers would attempt to qualify whatever they had in order to make the field and a decent payday. Today, competitive equipment is available to all, but the number properly funded teams and drivers qualified to win is still limited.

There are two kinds of drivers in any race. Both are talented but one is a racer by nature, a competitive person who can make his way to the front by driving aggressively, taking chances and seemingly willing his way past other drivers. They only race to win. The others may be equally talented, but for any number of reasons, they are less willing to take chances and are more inclined to wait for things to happen rather than making them happen. People in the pits know who the racers are before they get to the track.

Five rookies made the field. Four women also made the race, including, of course, the talented, but at times difficult, Danica Patrick. She finished seventh and proclaimed herself pleased with her car and her performance. Danica had a tough PR month and it’s hard to believe she was pleased with anything.


Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS - MAY 30:  Will Power of Australia, driver of the #12 Verizon Team Penske Dallara Honda, makes a pit stop during the IZOD IndyCar Series 94th running of the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 30, 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Only 14 cars completed the 200 laps, but another 6 talented and competitive drivers completed as many as 198 laps, including Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway, who’s dramatic crash brought the racing to an end for the day. Looking down the list of finishers, there is no shortage of participating talent, yet one third of the starting field crashed.

In part, this is due to the fact that while quick enough to qualify, a number of the drivers are too inexperienced to be racing with the big boys all day long. The Indy 500 is a tough place to be getting experience.

Another reason is plainly the nature of modern racing. Modern racing tires shed rubber as they wear. This rubber collects in small chunks on the outside of the preferred racing line and narrows the actual racing surface of the track. Going off-line with hot tires picks up these cast off pieces of rubber, unbalances the wheel and makes the car difficult to drive and uncompetitive, necessitating a pit stop and loss of position to change tires. Going off-line can also mean a loss of grip and a crash.

Before this phenomena, faster drivers drove around slower cars or slower cars were expected to move off-line to let them by. Because moving off-line is so dangerous now, leaders will not move around to pass and expect the slower cars to move onto the dirty surface and get out of the way. Imagine Graham Rahal’s surprise and chagrin when race officials black-flagged him for not moving off- line to let the race leader by. He qualified 7th and finished 12th, but his drive-thru penalty arguably cost him a chance at the win. It could also be argued that this decision would never have been an issue before soft compound tires. Uncompetitive drivers place a heavy burden on race officials because they are charged with getting them out of the way by drivers who are racing for a win.


Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS - MAY 30:  Dario Franchitti of Scotland, driver of the #10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara Honda, celebrates in victory circle after winning the IZOD IndyCar Series 94th running of the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 30, 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

500 miles at Indy generally separates the drivers from the racers and the racers did well today. Marco Andretti started 16th and finished 3rd. Dan Weldon started 18th and finished 2nd. Tony Kanaan charged from 33rd and at one point was 2nd. Those are the racers fans pay to see and despite the fact that one of the great all-times chargers, Paul Tracy, didn’t make the show, the fans got their money’s worth.

In the end, a well funded team with an experienced crew and racer started 3rd and won the race. Isn’t that what racing is all about today?


An Electric Car in Your Futureā€¦ Now

Posted on June 7, 2010 Comments (0)

2010 Tesla Roadster Sport at Larz Anderson Auto Museum (photo credit: Greg PC)

It’s no longer a question of whether or not you’ll have an electric car.  The question now is:  When? and what color will it be?

A small company in California has made the strongest effort yet to end your recurring nightmare about battery operated cars:  It’s a dark rainy night and you’re muttering bleakly to yourself as you guide the slowing little electric “econobox” to the side of a dimly lit highway.  The battery is dying, the lights are dimming, and the wipers are slowing. And your heart is sinking because you know there are no electrical outlets or clean bathrooms for miles.  Not a pretty picture.

Tesla Motors, maker of a new breed of high performance electric cars, has addressed your three major concerns. One, Tesla calms I'll-never-make-it-home fears with a mileage range of between 240 and 300 miles per charge.  Far beyond the mileage required for the average daily commute. Two, Teslas perform exceptionally well against what are considered current standards of comfort, safety and speed. And three, rather than looking like mobile meat lockers, both sport and sedan Teslas are unquestionably among the most handsome of cars.

So how does this happen?  Well, for one thing the evolution of the current modern car has laid the groundwork for Tesla’s acceptance.  Cars have changed dramatically from the finned behemoths of the ‘50’s. But our continued demand for greater efficiency in transportation, combined with the volatile politics of fossil fuels and the myriad finicky computers that control every aspect of the modern car, have created a huge opportunity for a simple and innovative solution. Mass transit systems, high speed rail, even bicycles, hold little appeal in this huge country as they are often deemed transport for students, the poor, or the environmentally awestruck.

Enter the Tesla. Forgetting for a moment that coal fired generators supply the electrical charge, this car is attractive, comfortable and environmentally friendly. Surprisingly, the Tesla Roadster Sport model, the only flavor available at this point, can trace its roots to the innovative Lotus Car Company of the Sixties and their popular Elan model. When the Lotus Elan first hit the roads and tracks of America, it had as disruptive an impact on the dinosaurs of its day as the Tesla is having on accepted technology today. At that time, the Elan’s nimble handling, great brakes and Ford Cosworth 1.55 liter twin cam engine pitted it against the likes of Corvettes, M-B 300Sl's, Porsche Carreras, anf Ferrari 250Gt's in SCCA B-Production racing.  It proved to be a very competitive car, setting a standard for small car speed and agility for years to come.

Today, the Tesla’s rolling chassis is built in the original Lotus Cars plant in Hethel, England.  The body is 4” longer than today’s Lotus Elise model, successor in spirit to the Elan. The Tesla is styled after the Elise but its body is made of carbon fiber rather than fiberglass. This adds great structural rigidity and lightens the car by 200 lbs. The “glider”, as it is called at that point, is then shipped to California where battery power components are added and the car is finished to the customer’s specifications.  Customers spec their car on the Tesla website.

That’s right, no local dealerships. This transaction is all done online and you are always a single keystroke from canceling the whole deal. But if you don’t, your local UPS delivery truck will bring your brand new Tesla to your doorstep in somewhere between 90 and 120 days. And your neighbors will all deem you to be either an eco-weenie or a visionary.  Comfort yourself, at some point, whether in reality or in their dreams, you will silently glide by them all at the local Mobil, a spot you wont have visited in months.

While Tesla is currently assembled in the United States from parts made elsewhere, a government subsidy to encourage further electric vehicle development will change all that.  But Tesla Motors’ fate will not be determined by politics and environmental demands alone. This company will also need to succeed on the merits of its products, and its first offerings bode very well indeed for that to happen.