Friday, 31 July 2015


The Dacia Sandero probably won't feature in the first episode of Clarkson, Hammond and May's new show on Amazon Prime TV! Also, Richard Hammond has facial hair now!

Get Ready For Alpine's Return

If you're under 30 years old, combining the words "Alpine" and "car" probably conjures an image of a gaudy head unit for a Vauxhall Corsa's oversized aftermarket stereo. But if you really know your stuff, then you won't think of /////ALPINE Electronics, but the French sports car company from yesteryear (pronounced "Al-peen" if we're being proper). Founded in 1955 by Jean Rédélé, Alpine started with modified Renault 4CVs before taking running gear from Renaults and putting them in bespoke rear-engined sports cars. The most iconic of these was the A110 rally car, featured in the video above from Petrolicious. When the World Rally Championship as we know it was founded in 1973, the A110 was at the peak of its development and was driven to six victories and the inaugural world manufacturer's title (it was entered by Renault). A year later, it along with everything else was left behind by the glorious and bonkers Lancia Stratos, but the "French 911" left a distinct impression on rally fans anyway.

It wasn't just rallying, though. With Renault's continued help, Alpine won the Le Mans 24 Hours on the third time of trying, in 1978, after which Renault called it quits on endurance racing and focused wholeheartedly on F1. Alpine continued their partnership with the major manufacturer on the road, with the A110 being replaced by the A310, A610 and closely-related Renault-Alpine GTA. However, while the later road cars achieved cult status, they never really had the impact of the A110. By 1995, they were all done and finished.

But now, ten years after their demise and sixty years after they were founded, Renault is bringing Alpine back! Woo, another retro reboot, everyone!

Except that this one's actually kinda cool. Technically the comeback has already been in the making for the last five years at least, with an Alpine-branded Signatech-Nissan LMP2 chassis being entered multiple times in Le Mans recently, as well as a bonkers and brilliant Vision Gran Turismo concept, which followed the VERY LOUD "A110-50 Concept," a race-modded version of the Renault Dezir concept's design based on a Megane Trophy racecar. Now we have the Alpine Celebration Concept, seen at Le Mans and Goodwood this year in close proximity to the A110 from which it takes much inspiration. This one is actually going to link to a production road car, originally a collaboration with Caterham until the partnership broke down but now a Gallic rival to the likes of Lotus and the Alfa Romeo 4C. Lightweight fun with racing heritage. Little more is known at this point, other than it is definitely going to make it from concept to production soon-ish, likely using expertise from Renaultsport.

So, to give the little blue coupé below some context, watch the video above! Vive Alpine!

Thursday, 30 July 2015

New Ford Mustang is Also the New Vauxhall Monaro

Cheap V8 cars are abundant in America, and have been since at least the 1960s. Fuel is cheap and standards for quality are arguably lower, so of course the muscle car makes sense there. Here? Ford have never seen reason to bring the Mustang here. It's big, brash, thirsty and unsophisticated, making it very much a niche buy in the UK, where roads are old and narrow, fuel is wildly overpriced and - let's be honest - sometimes people can be a little bit snobby. Would you turn up to a prestigious event amongst be-suited owners of Jags and Mercs in an orange T-shirt and sandals? No. They'd assume you were a loud and obnoxious simpleton, like your car. American muscle isn't exactly socially acceptable in most places.

Having said that, around where I live there seems to be an underground community of muscle car guys. The local specialist garage has a Trans-Am and a big '50s pickup in it among the Supras and Lotuses. I occasionally see a mid '90s Mustang (or even a red Fox-body) grumbling around near the petrol station and a house near me used to be lived in by someone with a MASSIVE '00s Dodge Ram pickup. Whether it's born from wanting some of that TV glam, a love of cartoonish cars or just a love of bang for buck (as a Dodge Viper owner once explained to me while keeping up with Porsche Carreras on a track), there are a smallish number of people in this country who can dig the Americana, or who don't mind saving money on quality to spend on fuelling and taxing a cheap V8 instead.

Previously the only officially available car here that served these people was the Vauxhall Monaro, a British-badged Australian take on the American muscle car (also sold on the loud continent as the Pontiac GTO). For around £35,000 you got a strong 'n' simple recipe of big V8, rear-drive, manual gearbox and chocolate-tray interior plastics housing bits from a saloon car. It had a brutish charm and an insatiable appetite for drifting matched only by an AMG Mercedes, which costs twice as much. Even Jeremy Clarkson loved it! It later evolved into the four-door VXR8 (HSV Commodore R8 to the Aussies), today's evolution offering 576bhp for £50k. Not the same value and hard to come by. Allegedly the Chevrolet Camaro of Transformers fame was sold here for a time, but at no point have I ever seen a single one, and Chevrolet won't actually exist at all in the UK by next year anyway. So where are we supposed to find a shouty V8 skid sled for £35k now?

Ford, that's where.

Ford has decided to stop having a wholly separate European range of cars and has spent the decade so far merging the EU and US models, taking the Fiesta, Focus and C-Max there, merging Fusion and Mondeo together and bringing the Mustang here. We get two engine choices, a fuel-friendly 2.3 Ecoboost turbocharged 4-cylinder - a version of the Focus ST engine - and the proper 5.0 V8. Americans get a V6 version too, but that's just for the ones who are allergic to four-pot muscle cars. We don't need that when the Ecoboost gives about the same performance with better economy. 320bhp, 317lb/ft and about 34mpg, in fact. But let's be honest here, who gives a shit about that? The four-cylinder version (which sadly "needs" artificially enhanced audio) is £28k basic, but the proper V8 one is £33k, just £5k more. You'd stretch up the extra, wouldn't you? You just would. As Chris Harris points out in the video up top, if you're buying into the American way of life, you want, nay, NEED a big V8. That's kinda the whole point, ain't it?

"But is anyone here really going to buy into the American Dream?" you ask. Well boy ah tell you whut, if you think nobody cares, you're dead wrong. The UK's first 130-unit allocation of RHD ponies were all sold in less than 30 seconds! The Mustang may not have been on sale here before, but it's been an icon for over 50 years, and icons are always desirable. In fact, all in all, 9900 Europeans tried to get a new 'Stang straight away. Once all the eager ones get their car, though, it'll be interesting to see if sales tail off or if Ford manages to hold our attention over the next few years.

The 5.0 V8 is rumored to get an upgrade to 500 horsepower next year, but for now it offers 420bhp, 386lb/ft, 21mpg and 299g/km of CO2, all of which isn't actually that bad for what it is. 0-60mph takes 4.8 seconds, a whole second faster than the Weak-o-Boost turbo four... while coughing up 120 more carbon dioxides, mind you. You can have either a lazily traditional 6-speed automatic (£1500) or a proudly traditional 6-speed manual funbox (£0). Don't go thinking this is just a retro throwback, though. For the first time, the Mustang has completely terminated its use of a live rear axle. If you don't know what a live rear axle is, take apart a Hot Wheels toy and take an axle out of that. It looks like that, but with a driveshaft going to the engine/transmission. Up until now the Mustang has had one in various evolutions since 1964, and much like the 911's rear-mounted engine, criticise the outdated concept and you'll be met with defensive outrage from fans every time. For Ford to have gone all complicated with the rear suspension is a big and bold move...

According to Drift Monkey Harris, it doesn't transform it into a BMW M4 (which costs £57k basic and won't be bought basic), partly because to please the home crowd, Ford had to make it still feel like a Mustang. Instead the result is an insatiable appetite for oversteer matched only by an AMG Mercedes, which also costs twice as much. While a vast improvement on the previous generation, the first global Mustang remains a strong 'n' simple recipe with a brutish charm. It's loud, proud and leaves onlookers wowed by the cartoonish looks. All for about £35k. If you miss the Monaro VXR and don't mind looking like a bit of a cowboy, here is your savior. Buy it, skid it, stick a middle finger up at the front-wheel-drive Audi TTs and VW Sciroccos you could've bought instead. Paint it dark green and pretend you're Steve McQueen. Piss off M4 drivers. Go on, it'll be fun! You'll have to wait a year first, though...

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Au Revoir, Jules Bianchi

It may have spared those daring, heroic drivers for the past 21 years, but today it's been made clear that Formula 1 can still kill after all...

Jules Bianchi passed away in hospital in his home town of Nice, France last night, after a 9-month induced coma following a diffuse axonal brain injury suffered in a horrific crash at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, where he slid off the track in torrential rain and went underneath a recovery tractor at around 100mph.

Within the F1 fraternity, he is known for being warm, humble and sharp-witted, a genuinely nice person by all accounts and everybody's friend. One of the good guys. To most of us F1 fans at home, he'll be best known for an epic drive at the Monaco Grand Prix last year, when he pushed his underdeveloped Marussia-Ferrari all the way up to 8th place, boldly forcing his way past Kamui Kobayashi's Caterham-Renault at Rasscasse in the process. He was demoted to 9th on a technicality (improperly-served time penalty), but even so it gave Marussia the only two points they have ever scored in Formula 1, which they celebrated like a win. Those points are the main reason they're still in the sport now (as Manor-Marussia).

Bianchi was a member of the Ferrari Driving Academy and widely recognised as having real talent and determination behind the wheel. He was linked to a Sauber seat for 2015, with a view to make it into the Scuderia once the opportunity arose. Who knows, maybe he'd have been in line to replace Kimi Räikkönen. We will always wonder what could have been...

But that's the real shame, if you ask me. A fallen star isn't quite as tragic as a rising star that never truly got the chance to rise.

It's always difficult to take positives from something like this, but the one thing we can take from what is now a fatal accident in Suzuka is that Formula 1 has already reacted to it. We now have the "Virtual Safety Car" system which neutralises the race without a full Safety Car period, to slow the cars down while marshals and/or recovery vehicles are near the track without screwing with the race itself too much.

That said, while the tragedy is already bringing safety improvements to F1, it nevertheless proves the dark theory that nothing significant changes in motor racing until somebody dies.

At the time, there were also renewed discussions about closed cockpits, but the investigation showed that the brain injury was actually caused by the car going from 100mph to a standstill far too quickly, causing the brain to jolt inside his skull. A similar, much milder example of this phenomenon includes Mark Webber's concussion at the 2014 Sao Paulo 6 Hours, in the closed-cockpit Porsche 919 Hybrid. A canopy would've made no real difference...

Unrealised potential, a lost friend for many, a talent taken from motor racing far too soon at 25 years old. Many more personal tributes have been paid by the motorsport community at large, but this one by Johnathan Noble probably sums it up best.

My sincerest condolences to his family, especially his parents who have stayed with him in hospital for months on end, in the hope that things would improve. I can't imagine how tough this is for them.

We will all miss you, Jules.