Sunday, 31 May 2015

Ariel Nomad Appreciation Post

I've written about the Ariel Nomad already - see here - but that was just the early info. Now we (read: other people) have videos of it. That's excuse enough to post about it again, because it's cooler than you... AND your car. Yeah, I said it. What are you gonna do about it, eh? Eh? Nuthin', that's what. Know why? 'Cause all you can do about it is be less cool than the Ariel Nomad. So there.

Sidenote: I don't know what Wye Fruit is but it is now awesome because it has been near an Ariel Nomad
A quick refresher for anyone who didn't click the link in the first sentence; one day Ariel decided to lift up one of their face-tearing Atom track toys and put big knobbly tyres on it for a laugh. The result was so fun they decided to turn it into a whole new model, and the Nomad is the result. This may seem like a strange direction for a rival to the likes of Caterham, BAC or Radical to take, but the people at the heart of Ariel live in the Somerset countryside and love motocross, mountain biking and Land Rover Defenders, so a life-size Tamiya buggy is actually right up their (muddy) street. Despite having the same exoskeleton aesthetic as the Atom, the only part that carries over to the Nomad is the dashboard. The chassis is completely new, the Honda 'K24' engine from a US-market Civic Si is a different lump to the Atom's supercharged 'K20Z4,' the suspension is outboard rather than partially nestling inside the chassis, and so on and so forth.

The naturally aspirated 2.4-litre engine is revvy, but tuned by Ariel for strong mid-range to make it better off road, so while it makes its maximum 235bhp at a heady 7200rpm, the peak torque of 221 lb/ft (300NM) - which matches that of the 2.0-litre Supercharged Atom - is found at a more reasonable 4300rpm. Because this is a proper no-bullshit car, the only gearbox you can have is a 6-speed manual with a clutch pedal. Deal with it. That said, you get a lot more choice with other important aspects of the car; there are four different sets of suspension components to choose from, depending on the size of the stuff you want to drive over. Road, mud, sand, rocks, snow, whatever. You also get to choose between 15" or 18" wheels with all-terrain road tyres, or snazzy body-coloured "rally wheels" with HUGE knobbly tyres (as pictured above) and those wheels can be shod in specialist tyres for varying terrains as well if you so choose. Regardless of suspension/wheel/tyre combo, you can also fit it with a bullbar and winch! And flags with LED lights at the top! And spot lights! And the windscreen is optional!

Spec lightly and the weight is a scant 670kg, or about as much as an Austin Mini, although it can climb to 750kg with serious options like heavy-duty suspension, full under-body protection and so on. It's rear-wheel-drive only, but with 35:65 weight distribution and a limited-slip differential, there's plenty of traction to punt such little weight up a grassy hill. Alternatively, you can spec it for track use, with FIA-approved harnesses and battery cut-off and such like, along with sports tarmac tyres. Whatever driving you fancy, the Nomad can be built for it. As long as you don't fancy warm, comfortable wafting around. Buy a Citroën for that. Oh, and your only choice of stereo is nature itself, accompanied by loud tyre roar above 50mph and a peppy four-cylinder growl as you chase the red line. On that note, 0-60mph is dispatched in just 3.4 seconds, 0-100mph comes and goes in 8.7 seconds and the top speed is a probably-very blustery 125mph, or 134mph on proper road tyres. I don't fancy proving either top speed without the optional windscreen...

The suspension can travel up to 250mm, about the same as a full-on WRC car, but there are two sets of Eibach coil springs per wheel, with soft, short ones for lumps and bumps on the road, and longer, harder ones for doing MAD JUMPS off SICK RAMPS when you feel like being awesome and doing awesome stuff. This double-action set-up combined with adjustable Bilstein dampers apparently allows it to ride well on road, with the extra lean giving you an even clearer idea of where that minimal weight is being thrown around. Yet reviewers say it steers just as sharply and accurately as an Atom. Win-win!!

It's difficult to comprehend this car being any cooler. The only thing Ariel can think of is to add a supercharged version to the range, which will be fantastic, but the Nomad is every 5-year-old's fantasy made life size. Comprising of little more than a climbing frame, body panels at each end made of the same hard-as-hell plastic as traffic cones and a growly yet reliable engine, it has an approachably neutral facial expression to make it universally appealing, an undeniable sense of adventure about it and the freedom to be customised to suit any kind of fun driving you can think of, be it B-road blasting, rally stages or just driving over stuff. Or even doing mad jumps. Go play on their configurator. You'll love it. Prices start at £33,000. It's worth it. I want it. You want it. Children want it. The child inside you wants it and will be endlessly thrilled if you buy it. Let us be thankful for its existence.

Porsche 911 GT3 RS (991) - Too Capable?

Of course, there is no manual gearbox. If that comes as a shock, then I'm afraid you were being a bit naïve. Not only is the normal GT3 paddles-only, but this car is as close to a 911 GT3 Cup racing car that a road car can really be, and the racing car has a paddleshift gearbox. Finally, if you're so interested in choosing purity over performance, just buy a Cayman GT4 for half the price (if you can find one for sale). That's what it is for. That is why we must love it.

Meanwhile, the GT3 RS is serious business. Despite the bigger Turbo body it's 10kg lighter than the normal GT3, thanks to added carbon fibre and magnesium (the roof is 1 millimetre thick!) and fewer interior comforts... which you can put back in again for a price. The aero package also includes vents over the front wheels to reduce pressure in the wheel arches and increase front downforce. The Clubsport Package with rollcage and bucket seats are fitted as standard, BECAUSE SORT-OF RACECAR. Despite producing almost identical figures to the ultimate previous-gen GT3 RS, the engine is actually the direct-injection unit from the current GT3, but tweaked, tuned, and enlarged. At 4.0 litres, it's 200cc bigger, enough to give it 500PS (493bhp) and 340lb/ft, up by 28 horses and 15 torques. The only thing that isn't an improvement is the 8800rpm redline, down from 9000, potentially for reliability. It still sounds like a racer, though.

The rear-wheel-steering and active torque-vectoring LSD remain, while chassis mods include wider tracks front and rear, and wider tyres. In fact, the rear tyres are direct carry-overs from the 918 Spyder hyper-hybrid. So the performance ought to be mind-bending, and video reviews seem to show that it is. 0-60mph in 3.3 seconds, 124mph in 10.9 seconds and 192mph aren't all there is to it, either, nor is the 7:20 'Ring time. As it turns out, it's a surprisingly civilised road car as well, with better steering feel, massive grip and plenty of suspension compliance even though it's a hardcore track-slayer.

The thing about it being such a supple and usable road car is that, while it's arguably more worth the £130,000 base price as a result of its depth of talent, and it's awesome that we can now make a car of this type so compliant on the road without compromising its track-slaying ability... does it take away from the point of it? This is almost just "what the GT3 could've been in the first place." Only it's more expensive because it has more magnesium and carbon. Should an RS be bothered with on-road compliance? Is that kind of balance not what the normal GT3 is for? Does it really feel £30k more special when you drive it?

I don't have the answer. Maybe I should just be thankful that you can order it in Dairy Milk purple.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

21st Need For Speed Game will be Fast, Furious and Stylish [UPDATED]

If you had your childhood in the '90s or later and/or have loved cars at any time in your life, chances are you've played Need For Speed games at some point. My first one was Need For Speed II (not the "SE" version) back in 1997 when it was new, and I stayed loyal to the series right up until NFS SHIFT left a sour taste in my mouth and I became disillusioned once and for all. The only one I've bought since then was the third Hot Pursuit (2010) and that had been made disappointingly idiot proof compared to the older Hot Pursuit titles. There have been a lot of different ideas for what direction the series should take since the simple original title landed in 1994, courtesy of Electronic Arts and Road & Track magazine in the USA. Supercars, modified cars, modified supercars, police chases, street racing, Japanese touge, drifting, mixtures of a few of those, attempts to encompass every car "scene" and tarmac racing discipline at once, packaged as something arcade-y or as a serious simulator or somewhere in-between, all these ideas have been tried and not all have worked particularly well... and then they went and released a shit movie with the same name and branding. I still refuse to watch the full film. It will just piss me off.

In the intervening 18 months since NFS: Rivals, the 20th full title, Swedish/British developers Ghost Games have been busying themselves with the next full installment in what must surely by now be the longest-running video game series of all (unless they're still stringing out Final Fantasy or something). We'll see a lot more of it in a month's time, but for now we have a teaser trailer, some development screenshots and a blurb from their website:

With over 20 years of history in its rear view mirror, Need for Speed™ returns with a reboot that delivers on what Need for Speed stands for - rich customization, authentic urban car culture, a nocturnal open world, and an immersive narrative that drives your NFS game.

Fuelled by our very own car culture community, Speedhunters has helped deliver a NFS experience that is grounded in authentic car culture by diving into the world of past, present and emergent trends of the urban car scene. NFS will unleash the passion for cars when it releases this Autumn, 2015.

So there's that.

The Speedhunters connection explains the RWB Porsche, Rocket Bunny BRZ and Vaughn Gittin Jr-style Mustang seen so far. Something I only found out today is that the major car culture blog was actually launched by EA as an extension of the series, so their collaboration now makes total sense. They also like things that are very fast and/or elaborately customised, which is very NFS. We will see a lot more about the customisation function in this new game - seemingly just titled Need For Speed, in the style of the 4th Fast & Furious film - on 15th June, but SH promises "real world, well... everything," as well as lots of behind-the-scenes posts in the build up to the game's release a few months from now.

I'm actually rather intrigued by all this, as a reader of theirs and a former NFS fan. Can game number 21 really be a major hit? Will it be a more legit, slightly less cartoonish version of the early-2000s Underground titles? Will it try to be a serious sim or an accessible arcade fest? Given the long and varied history, it could still go any number of ways, even with the style apparently being confirmed as nocturnal street racing... with style. Look out for more info the day after Le Mans. If you're still awake after watching Le Mans ;-)

UPDATE (30/5): There has been a small leak of information (found via Carscoops) since this post was published.

XBox Store recently put a post up previewing the game, with a few snapshots and some info, which reads thusly:

Discover the nocturnal open world of urban car culture, driven by 5 unique ways to play and win, in this thrilling reboot of Need For Speed. Carve your own unique path, via multiple overlapping stories, gaining reputation on your journey to become the ultimate icon.

> Rich Authentic Customization: Build a car that reflects your character through extensive visual & performance customization.

> Five Ways to Play: NFS returns with five unique ways to play - Speed, Style, Build, Crew and Outlaw - enabling you to earn reputation and ultimately win your way.

> West Coast Urban Setting: Discover a nocturnal open world of urban car culture you never knew existed. Ventura Bay is your [fictional] urban playground; from downtown, the harbour and the canyons, the city comes alive while others sleep.

So there's that. One sure-fire way to add replay value is to offer multiple paths through the game, something we've seen in NFS before. Hopefully it will be worth playing over and over. The release date is currently set at 3rd November.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

McHonda Swaps Chrome For Graphite, How Thrilling For Us All

2015 McLaren MP4/30 (Spanish GP livery)
In a season when changing your helmet design for a race is strictly banned for brand/identity purposes, McLaren-Honda has gone and changed their entire livery for the upcoming Spanish Grand Prix and the remainder of the season. Despite the Spanish GP typically being the race where teams bring in large upgrade packages, the boss of Honda Racing assures us that no engine development tokens have been spent for this race, so there can't be any significant gains there. Maybe instead they're banking on the "go-faster stripes" myth actually being true?

It's fair to say that their initial "colour" scheme for 2015 was a huge letdown, partly because it didn't look like the '80s/90s McLaren-Hondas (more on that in a mo) and partly because it looked almost identical to a McLaren-Mercedes from 10 years ago. Having been given a massive opportunity to create a fresh new look for a legendary F1 team, McLaren's designers bottled it big time, or just straight-up didn't bother. Now, however, Ron Dennis's team has engaged an aesthetic optimisation strategy programme in order to make the sponsors - all three or four of them - stand out a bit more.

McLaren said quite early on that they would change the livery after it was almost universally slated. Initially this just meant that the lower section was sparkly instead of just black, and now we have this. Why isn't it a throwback to the Senna-Prost era? Because that would be strongly reminiscent of Marlboro, whose sponsorship of the old McLaren Honda defined that livery (along with the Penske IndyCar team and many others from around that time). As the writer of F1Fanatic points out, not only is tobacco sponsorship strictly banned, but Marlboro's owners, Philip Morris, own Scuderia Ferrari's advertising space. Why remind everyone of the people that currently make huge money with your arch nemesis? I must admit, this is not something I had considered before...

Scale and photo angles vary
Anyway, the new livery is described by McLaren as "[improving] the MP4/30’s visual impact, optimising it for not only bright sunshine but also for the floodlights increasingly used in twilight and night races. The result is a dynamic, predatory, graphite-grey colouration, complemented by McLaren-dayglo 'Speedmarks' and keylines, reducing the reflection issues caused by our latest chrome-silver treatment" (emphasis mine).

Does it make you feel preyed upon?
Better question:
Does it make you feel preyed upon by dynamic graphite???

Photo angles vary here too, but this time it's McLaren's fault
Sadly, this sex panther of a McLaren probably isn't going to be preying on Red Bulls and prancing horses any time soon, let alone the still-dominant Mercedes cars. Honda have had a tough start to their F1 return, having to run at reduced power to avoid engine overheating only to encounter electrical problems instead... or as well. Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button have barely had a whiff of a points finish in the first four races, and while Honda's package could be a revelation when it's all running properly, it looks set to be a long time before we can find that out for sure.

As far as we know, the key thing about Honda's "RA615H" power unit is the turbocharger. Like Mercedes, they're apparently running a "split turbo" where the cold side (air compressor) and hot side (exhaust-driven turbine) are sat at either end of the engine, connected via a shaft which has the MGU-H energy recovery sub-system on it. Unlike the Mercedes engine, Honda's turbo runs deeply through the vee of the V6 rather than sitting on top. To achieve this, the cold side at the front consists of an "axial flow" compressor, which looks and operates more like the front of a jet engine whereas a normal "radial flow" automotive turbo compressor as used by other teams looks much like the hot side; a snail's shell of piping with a spinning rotor in the middle. As well as allowing them to squeeze the turbo between the two cylinder banks, the advantage of this system in theory is that the turbo spools up faster, giving less lag and producing a more driveable car along with having greater efficiency. The disadvantage is that it can't produce as much ultimate boost as a conventional turbo, but in a fuel-limited formula, this shortfall is somewhat diminished. When Nando goes on about it being pointless to do it Mercedes's way and how McLaren-Honda is a better bet for him than Ferrari, this sort of thing it probably what he's on about.

Other quirks of their power unit include the intercooler running down the spine of the car, a more compact air intake plenum chamber (air box, to over-simplify it) made of aluminium or a related alloy instead of the normal carbon fibre, and all the various control electronics units being packaged in one little box under the fuel tank. For fuller detail, check out Craig Scarborough's post on Autosport here, from whence the image above came.

The point of all this gubbins optimisation is to make the rear half of the car as compact as possible, so that the aerodynamicists can streamline the bodywork as well as possible to get air to the diffuser as cleanly as possible. Red Bull did this a lot during their era of domination, but these highly complex new V6 hybrid turbo power units need a lot more cooling and take up more space. For the constructors, 2015 has been mostly about finding more efficient packaging of the cooling elements than in 2014. Despite having an all-new, un-tested engine, McLaren were very aggressive in this area, dubbing theirs a "size-zero F1 car." This has given Honda's engineers a major headache as they try to squeeze everything in, but then tight restrictions can often lead to creative solutions, as we see here.

Will it be the next big thing when it's all running at full power reliably? When will that be? Time will tell - personally I suspect we won't see this package running at its true capability until 2016, even if they continue making strides this year - but Alonso, Button and McLaren-Honda seem very optimistic about what their future holds with this car. Be patient, stay tuned in, and #BelieveInMcLaren. That's all we can do for now.