Saturday, 30 April 2016

Witness the Greatest Motor Race of 2016: Ricci vs Felipinho!

We have seen many fierce rivalries at the pinnacle of motor racing. Hunt/Lauda. Prost/Senna. Schumacher/Everybody. But so far, Daniel Ricciardo has been able to avoid getting wrapped up in a personal rivalry with a particular driver... until...



Naturally, such a throwing down of the gauntlet could not be taken lightly. Felipinho Massa called out the Australian, challenging him to a one-on-one battle on his home circuit as Casa Massa in Monaco.
Ricciardo responded. In Portuguese, no less...

...and so, the scene was set. It was time for an epic showdown of, well, epic proportions!
Living in Monaco himself, Mr. Ricciardo was only too happy to pick up the gauntlet, and mount his Crazy Cart alongside the home favourite. How would this turn out? Who would get the inside line into turn 1 of this tight Monaco circuit? Watch the race below:

 One could argue about whether there was a clear weight advantage in favour of Massa, but ultimately the stopwatch doesn't lie, and - unless I'm very much mistaken - the result in the end was clear. It's round one to the young Brazilian/Monegasque hot-shoe! The world of racing waits with baited breath for the inevitable rematch...

Watch Highlights of the WEC Silverstone 6 Hours

You've all heard of Formula 1. Hopefully most of you have heard of Le Mans... but did you know that they do shorter versions of Le Mans during the year too? This is the World Endurance Championship, and while the 24 Heures du Mans is round three of the series, the other eight races are run for a more reasonable 6 hours. I won't make you watch the whole thing, but here is the series's official 52-minute highlights programme, available for free on the intertubes! You'd never get that from F1's YouTube channel... and you're unlikely to see three manufacturers fielding cutting-edge land-based spaceships that race absolutely flat out for three times longer than a grand prix, either. If you want to figure out who to support or bet on for Le Mans, you could do worse than to start here, with the opening round.

Round two is at Spa, and it's next week. Once again it'll be Porsche v Audi v Toyota with no obvious favourite to win, followed by three other hotly contested classes of varied racing cars from purpose-built prototypes to production-based GTE cars. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Mazda MX-5 Reaches a Million Sales

What's the best-selling roadster of all time? What's the best-selling two-seater sports car since 2000? What's won over 250 automotive industry awards? What's the first image in your mind when you think of a small convertible? What bucks the trend for fat turbocharged paddle-matic powerhouses achieving performance figures mere mortals cannot legally reach? What taught the world the Japanese phrase "Jinba Ittai" meaning "horse and rider as one?"

The Mazda MX-5 is the answer to everything.

This month, twenty-seven years to the month since the original "NA" Mazda MX-5 (or Eunos Roadster if you're JDM, bro), the iconic affordable sports car has reached a milestone hitherto unseen by anything with a folding roof and "sports car" classification: a million sales.

One million. That's a 1 and then six 0s.

By far and away the best selling car of its type of all time, the MX-5 was one of the cars (along with the R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R which appeared a few months later) that ushered in Japan's golden age of performance cars, which stretched right through the 1990s before new emissions regulations killed off almost all the cult hero names - RX-7, Supra, Integra Type-R, Skyline GT-R, Silvia - in 2002. Not long after that it was pretty much only the MX-5 you could still buy. Having ridden out that storm, its evolutionary approach to styling and engineering has seen the purist roadster continue to be popular right through to today, thanks in part to a dedicated fanbase.

Mazda CEO Masamichi Kogai said as much:
"From the first generation through to today's fourth-generation model, the reason we have been able to continue selling the MX-5 all these years is due to the strong support of fans around the world."

clockwise from back left - NA, NB, NC and ND generations of the Mazda Roadster
Launched officially in April 1989 after debuting at the Chicago Motor Show two months prior, the MX-5 (Miata in the US, Eunos/Roadster in Japan) was conceived by people who mourned the near-extinction of the small roadster. All the great British roadsters - MGB, Triumphs, Austin Healeys, Lotus Elan - had disappeared, as well as domestic rival the Datsun Fairlady Roadster. Only the Alfa Romeo Spider remained in production at the end of the '80s, defiant against a new landscape of hot hatches that could go just as fast while carrying a tree. Or a third or fourth human. Mazda threw their new hat into the ring with a car meant not to be the fastest, or the most dramatic, or the most hardcore or the most advanced. It aimed to be the simplest sensible road car it could. If you couldn't stomach a windy and spartan Caterham Seven, this would be the next best thing, offering air conditioning and a stereo (sometimes with speakers in the headrests!) as well as open air thrills and rear-wheel-drive purity. Lotus responded later that year with the first Elan since 1972, but that was an almost square-shaped front-wheel-drive car with an Isuzu Gemini powertrain and a higher price tag than the Mazda (plus - gasp - it was later produced in South Korea as the Kia Elan). Compared to that the MX-5 very much took after the 1960s Elan instead, using the same proportions inflated into a shape that conformed with contemporary safety regulations.

It wasn't just the shape that, one could argue, took inspiration from the first Lotus Elan. All MX-5s have a rigid steel "backbone" to join the engine/gearbox at the front to the differential at the back to create a convertible that doesn't flex so much. In the image on the left you'll notice that Colin Chapman quite liked that idea too. In fairness, it's an effective idea, and the Mazda's backbone is much more elegant, joining the front and rear subframe underneath the monocoque body/main chassis. The differences start to end with material choice, as the Mazda's conventional steel body is simpler to mass produce than Lotus's favoured fibreglass. The fastidious approach to simplicity throughout the MX-5's design - fully independent suspension aside - meant that despite conforming to the world's crash safety rules, it only weighed 980kg (2160lbs). To give that some perspective, the newly revived Nissan Skyline GT-R that came out in the same year weighed 1430kg (3153lbs), the also-new BMW Z1 with all its expensive clever lightweight engineering was 1250kg (2760lbs), and the Mazda's most direct rival, the Alfa Spider, was a shade heavier at 1040kg (2293lbs), but then bloated to 1110kg (2447lbs) a year later when updated. Lightness is rightness. A lighter car makes better use of the same power, stops quicker, changes direction quicker, uses less fuel, heals the sick... oh wait not that last one. The point is that something weighing under a tonne can make even a modest 114bhp and 100lb/ft from a 1.6-litre engine potent enough to have some fun. After five years they even added a 1.8 to the range with 130 horsepower and an LSD! Goodness gracious. The 5-speed manual gearbox (you could have an auto but few wanted one) sent power to the rear wheels.

It wasn't exactly quick, with 0-60 in 9.4 seconds and 119mph flat out (8.2 and 126mph for the 1.8-litre engine), but that didn't stop it being a big hit. The first generation (NA) sold over 420,000 units in an eight-year lifespan. Replaced in 1997/98 with the NB, which updated the styling inside and out (no more pop-up headlights...) while cutting drag, adding a shade more performance (0-60 in 7.8s) and weighing only 85kg more despite being wider, sold over 300,000 cars in the next seven years. In 2005 the NC came out, with a noticeably bigger body and styling to reference the NA. With greater demand for safety and comfort, it was also noticeably heavier at 1110kg (2447lbs) for the basic model... but it was also the first MX-5 with a 2.0-litre engine available, making 167bhp and 140lb/ft. Alas, in a straight line all the extra power did was cancel out the weight penalty, so it wasn't much quicker. As the '00s was the age of the metal folding roof, Mazda also brought out the MX-5 'RC' (or PRHT in USA) with a two-piece motorised metal roof that folded into exactly the same hole as the normal manual fabric roof and only added another 40kg. The NC generation lasted for nearly a decade, perhaps due to difficult economic times delaying the development of the all-new model we have now. It sold around 227,000 units.

So we end up at the current 'ND' generation. After the NC we get a car that very much bucks a lot of fashionable trends. There remains no turbocharged engine. There's no all-wheel-drive version or dual-clutch gearbox (although they still offer a conventional automatic for retired people), there are no huge wheels with painted-on tyres and there's sure as hell no hybrid version. Nope, this new car is old school. It's even approximately the same size and weight as the original NA, at less than 4m long and weighing 1058kg. The 1.5-litre engine makes a mere 130 horsepower, while the 2.0 manages 160bhp (0-62 in 8.3s and 7.3s respectively). That said, they did succumb to the trend of having a pretend-iPad sticking conspicuously out of the dashboard, which is a shame. Still, the styling is much more dynamic looking than the previous cars while still being instantly recognisable, while underneath it offers the same kind of fun for drivers that it always has, with its skinny tyres making the limits of grip easy to reach at legal speeds if you want to. Even the price is minimalist - while TopGear tried claiming that the Toyota GT86/Subaru BRZ was the only cheap rear-wheel-drive sports car at £25,000 the MX-5 is actually notably cheaper, with the new ND starting in the UK at £18,500. There aren't even a huge number of hot hatches for less than that, and the only way a Caterham costs less is if you build a completely bare 160 for yourself (by "completely bare" I mean it doesn't have carpets or a windscreen).

In fact, so good is the new MX-5 that it's served as the base for the new FIAT 124 Spider... and there's more!

2016/17 Mazda MX-5 RF
The NC 'Roadster-Coupé' version has a successor in this Retractable Fastback (RF) version. The RF uses a system similar in concept to the current Porsche 911 Targa, where a panel holding the rear window lifts up out of the way to let the section of roof above your head hide away underneath it. From the side you might think it has a sloping coupé roofline, but actually the rear window is vertical, giving it XJS-style buttresses over the rear wheels. The system - which can be folded on the move at speeds up to 6mph (10km/h) - adds roughly 50kg to the weight of the car, but just as before it retains its 50:50 front-to-rear weight distribution and the roof doesn't take away any more luggage space.

So the MX-5 looks to continue going strong as the great minimalist sports car of our time. The millionth car itself was built on 22nd April, has had stickers put on the doors and will be displayed around the world including at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. The next time you see one, remember that it's a working class hero and scream "JINBA ITTAI" at the driver. That totally won't be weird at all.

Oh, and thank you Mazda for keeping it real for over 27 years. Here's to many more.

Written for SmallBlogV8

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Aston Martin V12 Vantage S Wants You to Pull Its Dogleg

2017 Aston Martin V12 Vantage S
In the last decade there has increasingly been a divide between cars that chase ultimate performance and cars that keen drivers enjoy driving the most. Take Porsche's Motorsport division; as well as the hyperactive GT3 and GT3 RS road cars, they recently introduced the limited-run 911 R, which takes the recipe of the other two and makes something slower... yet somehow more desirable. While the paddleshift GT3 models gain a car length with every seamless shift, drivers of the manual-only R instead gain a certain amount of satisfaction in doing it themselves each time by using a lever and a clutch pedal. While Stig's Amateur Cousin in the RS is very seriously finding the exact turn-in point into the sweeping left-hander, Chris Harris's Amateur Cousin in the R is very mischievously taking much longer to round the same corner by doing it sideways in a cloud of tyre smoke... because it's more fun.

But you've heard far too much about Porsches recently, haven't you? Fair enough. Aston Martin have recently become worth another look. Their new CEO Andy Palmer joined the company in 2014 coming from Nissan, where he oversaw the Japanese company's return to Le Mans - initially with experiments like the DeltaWing and ZEOD RC before the sadly ill-fated full LMP1 effort - as well as concept cars like the IDx that made petrolheads swoon only to be let down later by it never reaching production. Having moved from the mainstream into something more niche, Palmer's here to make a point or two.

This is the newly updated V12 Vantage S. To whom is this aimed? The lead image of this article is an official press image taken by Aston Martin themselves. It tells you all you need to know about that.

If the target market of this car appreciates a shot of it powersliding around a race track, it's likely that they will be amongst the minority of performance car buyers who still prefer changing their own gears. Most people will be flocking around the all-new twin-turbo DB11, which is bigger, more luxurious, more up-to-date aesthetically and technically, and available only with ZF's highly acclaimed 8-speed automatic that's used in just about everything fast and comfortable these days. Meanwhile, the Vantage range soldiers on for another year, despite first appearing in 2005. The V12 version first appeared in 2009, a glorious instance of a company shoehorning its biggest engine into its smallest car to create something of a hot rod. It wasn't the lightest (the 6.0 engine from the DBS weighed around 90kg more than the original car's 4.3 V8), but it was pretty hardcore, packing semi-slick tyres and a manual gearbox. Then in 2013 they made it into an 'S' version with updates from the new Vanquish, so 510 horsepower became 565 with better low- and mid-range oomph. By this time paddle-shift gearboxes had become favoured for their added speed and convenience, so the V12 Vantage S was only available with the company's 7-speed "Sportshift" single-clutch robotised transmission. Perhaps they couldn't afford to offer both at that time...

Now, however, the old school is back in session for the 2017 model year... and beyond. By all accounts, CEO Palmer is a true petrolhead and not one to be conservative. Aston's very bold DBX crossover bound for production soon was his idea, previewed as an all-electric vehicle. The recent engine tie-up with Mercedes-AMG also plays into his hands as he dealt with them at Nissan-Renault (Mercedes supply some engines to Infiniti and co-developed the Twingo/Smart ForTwo with Renault). Now, as well as mold-breaking experiments and a tie-up with Red Bull Racing to create an extreme hypercar coming soon, he recently made clear his commitment to saving manual gearboxes in Aston Martins:

"Broadening the scope of the V12 Vantage S with a manual transmission option is an indication of our desire to offer the keenest drivers a more analogue and immersive machine to enjoy. I'd like to take this opportunity to reiterate that the manual gearbox remains an integral part of our product plans and will do for many years to come. I've already gone on the record saying I want to be the last manufacturer in the world to offer a manual sports car." Cue riotous applause from the internet.

Don't go thinking they've just stuck the old 6-speed 'box from 2009 back in, though. Look at this:

Keen eyes will spot that the gears are all in the wrong places... or if you own a Lancia Stratos, Ferrari Testarossa or Mercedes 190E Cosworth, the right places. This is what's known as a "dogleg" layout, where first is to the left and down, rather than left and up, and the rest are in a double-H pattern. The advantage of this is that on a track, when you don't really use first gear, shifting from second to third is much quicker and smoother. The disadvantage is that you might forget, having been used to first being up not down, and try jamming it into reverse by moving it too far to the left. As well as track day kudos, Aston say that because this is a 7-speed, the car will feel natural to use the rest of the time. You could almost consider it a normal 6-speed with a 'zerowth' gear, as it were, for traffic lights and parking, such will be the torque from that 6.0 V12, maxing out at 457lb/ft (620NM) @5750rpm as well as 565 horsepower (573PS) @6750rpm.

It gets better. "AMSHIFT," an accompanying software system, allows the car to automatically blip the throttle on down-shifts for those who can't (be bothered to) heel-and-toe for themselves, much like you'll find in manual Porsches or - fancy that! - the Nissan 370Z. Better still, the system also allows "full-throttle upshifts," which sounds like you can keep the loud pedal pinned and just kick the clutch pedal while moving the stick "for maximum smoothness and minimal interruption in acceleration." Take that, paddles! The press release recommends Sport mode for particularly responsive and sonorous down-shift barks from that glorious twelve-cylinder naturally aspirated engine.

For the same money, you can if you want still have the automated Sportshift gearbox, but given that it appears to be no faster - AM don't state a different 0-62 time for each version, suggesting they're the same - there seems little point unless you're missing a leg or can't use a clutch pedal for some other reason. While the ZF 8-speed in the DB11 and Vanquish will be smooth and refined, the company's in-house paddleshift gearboxes have never enjoyed a reputation for reaction times, smoothness or reliability, be it in isolation or compared to rivals (especially dual-clutch rivals). Might as well do it yourself...

0-62mph takes 3.9 seconds on your way to 205mph. Outside of the GT12 track monster, this is the most hardcore Aston you can buy. It's certainly the most analogue.

While it may be an eleven-year-old design (thirteen if you include the AMV8 concept), the Vantage remains a very pretty car, clean and simple in an age of growing over-complication, its nigh-on perfect proportions standing the test of time. While a V12 hot rod with so many manual gears is a pretty butch machine, customers who just love to accessorise will be thrilled to note the fabulous new customisation package. The Sport Plus pack introduces five exclusive colours with optional contrast graphics around the grille, side skirts and rear diffuser, with matching mirrors (see the yellow bits on the car pictured). You also get special 10-spoke graphite-finish lightweight alloy wheels, while inside you can have black or grey leather with bright contrast stitching - plus accents on the seats and door cards - to create "a suitably dramatic interior theme." Ooh.

Suitably so!
The old infotainment software is also out, with a new "AMi III" system that includes navigation being introduced. The main improvements comprise "integrated graphics, quicker and easier address input, reduced loading times, updatable maps, graphical itinerary planning, advanced traffic information, enhanced map graphics and a greater range of voice guidance options. AMi III also incorporates Apple CarPlay to enable the integration of iPhone functions into the built-in display." Thank goodness the graphics are integrated and you don't have to attach them yourself...

The newly improved V12 Vantage S will be delivered to customers from late autumn this year, while at the same time the V8 versions are being consolidated down to a single coupé and roadster version in 'S' specification with some of the updates from this car. While Europeans can have as many V12s as they want, the US market will only get 100 individually numbered cars. It costs around £140,000 in the UK before optional extras.

Mostly though, petrolheads just need to celebrate Aston Martin's newly found confidence to do it their own way. Everything from analogue sports cars to all-new luxury GTs and a coupé-crossover are appearing under the coolest brand in the world, thanks in no small part to a boldly enthusiastic boss. Long may this attitude continue to spice things up.

Now go out there and do the sexiest, best-sounding drifts you possibly can. For the drivers! Save the manuals!