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Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Is it 'Adapt or Die' Time for Small Cars?

The small car is increasingly under threat, as more and more staples of the European 'A-segment' look set to go un-replaced when production of the current generation ends. There are several reasons why this could be.

One the one hand, cabin refinement, dashboard gizmos and safety ratings have long been important selling points of mainstream cars and, as a result of this ultra-competitive industry's players constantly one-upping each other, this has trained us all to naturally expect small cars to feel like big cars... while still being as cheap as small cars. The consequence is that profit margins have been minuscule for years and years now. As safety standards have risen and technological integration has become more comprehensive (including crash-predicting safety systems, of course), so this problem has only got worse for anyone trying to make a business out of creating affordable personal transportation.

On the other hand, the EV revolution, accelerated to potentially counterproductive pace by governments trying to assert their green creds, has then added the gigantic cost of developing and installing a battery the size and weight of a motorcycle into the space where the engine and gearbox used to go (and/or in the floor). Granted, battery prices have been steadily dropping, but without any great step-change in energy density they are still somewhat size and cost inefficient for the time being – and still don't have price parity with combustion cars. Witness for instance how the battery-only version of the Peugeot 208 (the e-208) sits at the top, not the middle or bottom, of its model range.

I could also take this opportunity to vent my spleen for the umpteenth time about the crossover fad, which is arguably just as wasteful as fitting a bigger engine to everything. All that extra material and extra footprint on the road over the hatchbacks within to the detriment of cost, drag, weight (and thus environmental efficiency) and driver enjoyment... for the sake of people's misplaced insecurity around image and perceived safety – concerns that aren't real, in other words, yet allow CUVs to continue steamrolling over the more logical body styles. Many car manufacturers are fine with this now, though, as it gives them more wiggle room to bolt a huge battery onto a new model's underbelly and style-out the chunkier proportions.

Whatever the balance is or the true causes are, it ultimately means that a given city dweller or worker travelling in their own car takes up more space in ever more congested streets, while more of those in less privileged positions could be at growing risk of being priced and emissions-regulated off the road (which currently means cramming into public transport during a pandemic), whether they desire independence of mobility or not.

So, how to proceed?

Well, the consumer can always consider a two-wheeled option, so long as they are prepared for being exposed to both the elements and the somewhat larger vehicles around them in cities such as buses, delivery trucks, premium taxi vans and angry morons in SUVs (oh, and if their bike is without self-propulsion, the enforced exercise as well). That's not to say you shouldn't consider one, but as logical and space-saving as bikes can be, cities would have to overhaul their streets to be tangibly cleaner and safer for them before they're preferable for everyone – including those who live too far away from work to ever cycle there without a useful(ly scheduled) train link en route.

As for car manufacturers looking for ways to cater to those who can't cycle and/or won't trust public transport, there is also the option of really cutting costs by going 'sub-car'. The teensy electric Renault Twizy and Citro├źn Ami (above), for example, are classified as heavy quadricycles instead of cars, thus meaning different regulations and standards are applied to them. For a lot of people this is a great choice, especially if user cost is brought down yet further through a car-sharing or subscription scheme, as these machines are hardly larger than a motorbike but put a solid roof over your head while even offering some luggage space and a passenger seat. 

Alas, for these to truly catch on would take a huge promo push from multiple major brands, as the current perception of 'sub-car' is, erm, sub-par. That pesky, pointlessly important problem of image creeps in again as a quadricycle will just tell the snobs to assume you can't afford a "real" car. Never mind that Nico Rosberg gets around Monaco in a Twizy...

In the meantime, there is a tantalisingly underutilised project by the genius design-engineer Gordon Murray and his team in Surrey: the 'iStream' car. Over a decade ago, project T.25 appeared. It's smaller, cheaper to build, significantly lighter and more efficient than a Smart ForTwo while also boasting seating For Three, thanks to a central forward driving position. It wasn't just a pie-in-the-sky animation, either; the T.25 and electric T.27 proved their worth in proper crash tests and efficiency rallies alike. The car was only half the story too, as the iStream process incorporated a compact, low-energy factory design that is claimed to steeply reduce lead time and set-up cost while employing sustainable materials.

Annoyingly, though, because Gordon Murray Design wasn't in a position to produce the car itself, it had to pitch the concept to other companies, be they toe-dipping start-ups and outsiders, or what are ultimately proud, risk-averse, traditionalist car manufacturers... who didn't want it. Yamaha briefly pursued entering the car market but ultimately backtracked and bottled it. The only public taker for a full iStream production car so far has been the gang trying to revive TVR and... well, in the four years since they debuted the TVR Griffith pre-production prototype, all they've managed to do is whinge about bureaucracy, slap some number plates on said car and promise a bunch of other new stuff that hasn't happened either. So, er, they might never get around to proving Murray's manufacturing concept at all. Blast.

What else could be done, then, if manufacturers can't be bothered to reinvent the car factory or make quadricyles cooler? Perhaps the answer can be found in Japan. The 'kei-jidosha' regulations were introduced after the second world war to get Japanese industry back on its feet and people back on the move. A co-operative effort between car companies and national government led to a new class of vehicle that had to fit inside a prescribed rectangle of outer dimensions while equally limited on engine capacity and power output.

These low-cost kei cars and trucks were then made attractive to the public through tax breaks and other financial incentives, which has ensured they remain popular in ever more congested cities and tiny rural villages alike, as Japan's motor industry has matured and grown seismically over the ensuing 70-odd years. Having said that, recent reductions in those tax benefits might hint that the authorities are hoping to discourage people from adding too many more of them to the street furniture of places like Tokyo, one of the world's busiest cities.

So, what might we take from all these thoughts? The car industry can't keep treating the entry-level models as just "a big car, but small" anymore. They're saying for themselves that it won't be feasible for much longer as regulations tighten and production costs rise. There needs to be a shift in methods, perhaps allied to a shift in public perception of what the littlest cars ought to be about at their core.

Personally, I want kei cars to go global. Maybe copy/paste Japan's setup, or maybe work on a variation thereupon with the same sort of collaborative effort between western manufacturers and governments. It's not just about whether you want cars in the centre of London or not; have you ever been to an old village in the countryside, with roads that were established before cars were even invented threading between historic buildings that mustn't be moved? People there also benefit noticeably from a right-sized and more affordable car, perhaps even more so on the cost side given the relative lack of public transport alternatives outside of larger towns and cities. Consider also those trying to buy their first car, and the peace of mind their parents would have if it was a new-gen car with all the latest safety gear instead of a 15-year-old Corsa. Or a scooter...

Taxing cars by weight would also be a great idea on several levels, but then the mass of the batteries car manufacturers are being cajoled into incorporating into their product strategy would make them vehemently disagree with that.

I also really wish someone would take on the iStream platform to give people a viable and attractive middle ground between current A-segment cars and tiny quadricycles – perhaps even in tandem with kei-style regulations and discounts. In fact I'm mystified that nobody seems to be publicly exploring that middle ground. Is the concept too good to be true? And how so?

[source]

Alternatively, there is one more revolutionary option on the horizon: ban private cars from cities altogether, create dedicated cycle roads, and replace taxis with Level 5 autonomous pods geo-fenced to stay in city limits on dedicated roads and lanes that are more easily interpreted by The Mighty Algorithm. It seems to be what the industry wants, and when it's painted as public convenience the public will learn to want it too. At that point, perhaps the small car as we know it becomes obsolete and its extinction a moot point. In urban areas, at least.

But we're not there yet, and until that changes, the steady erasure of exactly the sort of car the world needs to keep alive in the face of its challenges feels like an unnecessary and counterproductive backwards step in preparing the automobile for the bold new future. When was the last time you saw a concept study for improving personal mobility and the world around us that resembled a 2.5-tonne SUV?

Monday, 19 July 2021

So then, the 2021 British Grand Prix, eh?

 

I have been trying not to dwell on the controversial lap-one contact in the British Grand Prix today, given the inevitable waterfall of knee-jerk shit-flinging that’s still plastering the walls of social media and has been from the minute it happened… but if I can’t stop views and justifications and upset from swirling around my head then maybe I should try to write it out of my system.

While I can’t speak from a position of having driven these cars or raced hard for real, it looks to me like both drivers committed to the entry of Copse corner in a way that relied heavily on the other driver yielding and dropping behind… and since neither of them did yield, they met in the middle and there was a dramatic collision. Two unstoppable forces bounced off each other. The right-rear wheel rim of the Red Bull shattered on impact and Max Verstappen was instantly a passenger from there to the tyre wall. He seems to be uninjured and not concussed, which is great news if so given the forces involved.

If the collision had been less severe and one of the drivers hadn’t been taken out of the race, then it probably would’ve been deemed a racing incident and we’d have had the two championship protagonists duking it out for a little while longer before turbulent wake and tyre preservation consigned them to running in single file and trying to outfox each other on strategy instead. What actually happened is that the stewards leaned towards penalising Lewis Hamilton, which was predictable because it’s in line with how they viewed somewhat similar incidents in Austria with regards to putting more weight of responsibility onto the driver holding the inside line not to run the other guy off-track.

Lewis – having just been squeezed to within an inch of the concrete tyre wall following a late dart to the inside line – found himself having to commit to a very shallow angle of entry into a very fast corner. It turned out to be too much for the front tyres to facilitate, so it looks, and he consequently missed the apex. At the same time, Max sent it in seemingly on the assumption that Lewis wasn’t going to be there by the time he reached said apex (or got closer to it) for himself. But, perhaps conscious of how the new Sprint Qualifying had gone wherein the lead was basically out of his grasp after the first lap, Lewis was in no mind to back down until it was too late. They were side-by-side just before the turn-in point, but the Red Bull could carry more speed from the outside and by the time they met in the middle the Mercedes was only at front-tyre-to-rear-tyre level, pitching Verstappen into the spin.

As tensions exploded, Red Bull’s bosses started stirring the pot at every opportunity they were given, of which there were many. I’m not interested in handbags, but I will say that Christian Horner’s assertion that you “can’t” pass on the inside of Copse (ordinarily a ~180mph corner with one usable line) was put to bed later that same race, when Hamilton finally did take the lead with three laps to go by trying the same move again. Granted, Charles Leclerc isn’t fighting for the title like Verstappen is, but this could yet prove to be the best chance of a win he gets all year and I really don’t think he was planning to wave Hamilton past and say “ah, forget about it.” In the overhead replay shot he seems to get a mild slide on throughout the corner on the outside line, where a less-used area of tarmac probably held less grip for his Ferrari. Correcting it took him wide over the kerb and that was that. Furthermore, back in 2019, Valtteri Bottas even pulled the inside move on Hamilton himself as they slugged it out in the early stages of that British GP. Again, there’s a caveat to give – this time because they’re teammates – but the point remains that, when drivers allow 'racing room', it very much is possible to pass cleanly at Copse when you’ve had a strong enough exit out of Luffield to draw alongside by the turn-in point.

Channel 4’s commentators were quick to wonder if the context of it being Hamilton’s home race affected his decision making. Only he can answer that. I’d be minded to suggest it was more about the distinct likelihood of him not getting another opportunity to take the lead for the rest of the race, as previewed in the Saturday Sprint. The Mercedes car has, for a long time now, suffered noticeably in traffic because (just like the V8-era Red Bulls, ironically) it’s been designed to qualify on pole and drive off into the distance. I don’t know how true that is of the 2021 car specifically, but it’s observable that Lewis didn’t exactly sail past Leclerc’s ostensibly second-class Ferrari after the restart. In fact he sat around two seconds behind Leclerc and started playing to strategy instead (until his penalty-extended pit stop), as we very often see happen on circuits like Silverstone – especially a baking hot Silverstone – where turbulent wake is a strong factor and tyre degradation is always high. In the final phase, he instead put in the sort of flawlessly flat-out power stint that Michael Schumacher would admire, to reel-in the Ferrari from much further back and win his home race after all.

As for he and the team celebrating afterwards, I think it’s worth remembering his demeanour during the Red Flag period, when he was a very different picture of a man. Not somebody who looked impressed with himself at all, having asked on the radio if Max was OK. I could try to read something into him trying to emphasise the team's success above his own in the post-race interview as well. He’s not here to put people in hospital, he’s here to out-race them properly. No matter what his haters say. To me, the celebrating was about how it went from the restart onwards, as well as just taking the chance to enjoy the most adoring crowd he’ll get all year. The experience will be very, very different at the Dutch Grand Prix in September…

…which circles me back to the ‘fans’ and the internet.

You need only to have looked at the festival-esque grandstands in the Red Bull Ring recently to know what kind of following Verstappen has. They’re just as loud and unfiltered as that when they have something negative or disparaging to say, too. Given the differences in attitude between the Hamilton-Mercedes and Verstappen-RBR combos, from who kneels before the anthem and who doesn’t, to how their bosses handle the public and what their fanbases are like, I felt dread in my gut when I watched car 33 ricochet off car 44 and out of the race. As a generalisation, the apparent divisions between them are not just about sport or automotive brand loyalty. The fallout was always going to be unsavoury. Suffice to say that when both teams had to put out statements today condemning racist abuse towards Hamilton I wasn’t in the least bit surprised that it was necessary for them to do so…

Regardless of which way you lean on what issue*, though, it seems pretty clear that this rivalry is going to reach levels of intensity and tribalism to match the days of Senna and Prost by the end of this year, accelerated by the omnipresence of (anti)social media and the 24/7 global ‘discussion’ it facilitates.

For a long time, pretty much since Schumacher’s first retirement, I’ve increasingly been a neutral F1 fan. I want to see great racing, whether it’s for 1st, 10th or 15th place. Regarding these two, I admired Lewis Hamilton when he arrived with a bang in the late ‘00s, then I went off him for a few years, but recently I can’t help admiring him all over again for the sporting greatness he’s reached and the way he’s using his platform to try doing good things for the world – very much swimming against the surrounding tide in the process. I have equally had to just sit back and watch in awe at some of the performances Max Verstappen has put in, such as the waterproof charge to the podium from 14th at a drenched Interlagos in 2016 that comes to mind so readily. His instant impact and the way he has become a national sensation on such a scale is a rare and special thing for the sport, on its face. I just fear how ugly things may get between tribes as this all rumbles on.

This race is a trigger point for some big things, both good and bad, for Formula 1. Let’s see how it goes from here.

*F1’s weaksauce We Race As One campaign is meant to encompass several different social and environmental matters in the world, but to clarify where I am on the prevalent “issue” featured in the public F1 discourse throughout today: racism is fundamentally indefensible in any circumstance. There is no logic, there is no justification, there is no excuse. You can be annoyed by a driver’s split-second decision-making without hurling racial slurs at them. You manage that all the time when sniping from afar at the white drivers, after all. No, they don’t “ask” for your myopic shithousery by embracing their own existence or by simply being visible to you at all. No, a driver’s skin tone isn’t an influence on their driving and so it doesn’t factor into what happened on Sunday whatsoever. If you are so depressingly low on tact, intellect or self-control that you can’t stop yourself from going there then do the rest of us a favour and take your interests somewhere else until you learn to grow out of it. Motorsport doesn’t need you until then. Nor does any developed, even half-decent society.

That’s all I have to say. I want to think about other things now.

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Van Roij Breadvan Hommage is a '20s tribute on a '90s Ferrari to a '60s racecar

Somewhere in the world, or on the internet, there must surely exist a master list of all the cool things that have happened as a result of people being pissed off with Enzo Ferrari. There's the obvious stuff, of course, like the Ford GT40 story, or tractor manufacturer Ferruccio Lamborghini responding to Il Commendatore's flippant dismissal of his criticisms around the 250 GT by starting to build rival cars of his own. But there is also the lesser famed stuff, like the set of highly rated engineers who quit Ferrari all at once in 1961 and founded both the Bizzarrini and Automobili Turismo e Sport (ATS) sports car companies – albeit to far less success than Lamborghini.

Oh, also there was the Jerrari...

Anyway, I bring this up now because one of those companies, ATS – which can lay claim to producing the first ever mid-engined road car in the 2500GT – is related to the backstory behind the inspiration for the striking coachbuilding project you see a sketch of above, the final product of which was digitally revealed this week.

ATS was backed financially by Count Giovanni Volpi di Misurata, whose (also extremely Italian sounding) racing team Scuderia Serenissima had raced various different Ferraris for several years. When Enzo Ferrari discovered that Count Volpi was funding his deserters and their new rival manufacturer, the relationship that had existed between the two men vanished in a flash. Suddenly Volpi was out of the loop, which became a problem when he wanted to upgrade his 250 GT SWB to the trick new GTO that was about to take road racing by storm – only for him to be refused and turned away.

250 GTOs are now so valuable than I can only afford to show you this wireframe design model

Plainly, the trendy new thing to do in the early 1960s when Enzo shut you down was to get mad, then try to get even with your own car. Rather than start from scratch like Lamborghini and the ATS founders (Carlo Chiti and Giotto Bizzarrini), he decided to work with what he already had: Ferrari 250 SWB Competizione chassis 2819GT. His new business partner Bizzarrini, who prior to the Ferrari "palace revolt" had worked on the very GTO that Volpi was denied, agreed to take part in upgrading and enhancing the car into something of equal or greater competitiveness.

The resulting machine was reportedly around 65-100kg lighter than a GTO, while the V12 engine was mounted lower and further back in the chassis and received a dry sump conversion, plus six carburettors for good measure. The power boost was modest, with around 300hp versus 286, but the improved weight balance of its revised installation would benefit cornering dynamics too.

Count Volpi's transformed 250 GT, ahead of the car it used to be
(photo from UltimateCarPage.com)

However, the most obvious transformation was on the outside. To yield even more straight-line speed, the car was given an all-new body designed by Piero Drogo. The nose is so low that the engine, even in its new lowered position, pokes through the bonnet. But that's not the bit that grabs your attention. The new roof, however, wasn't only lower than that of the GTO, it was also significantly longer and straighter with a near-vertical tail at its abrupt end.

The tapering 'Kamm-tail' roof concept, combined with a lack of additional side glass to run along it, gave the car the appearance of a squashed commercial vehicle. French media dubbed it 'La Camionette' (little truck). In English, however, it is known as the 'Breadvan'.

In its first race, nothing less than the 1962 Le Mans 24 Hours, the Bizzarrini-Drogo 250 Breadvan overtook every Ferrari 250 GTO in the field and ran as high as 7th overall before suffering a driveshaft failure in the fourth hour. In the following two races, it took GT class victory at the Brands Hatch Guards Trophy and Ollon-Villars hillclimb (setting a course record for GT cars in the latter).

Point made, one feels – and the aero philosophy which gave the car its, erm, distinctive rear end was then applied to several subsequent cars in the years that followed, if often somewhat less brutally.

Due to limited resources for development, the Breadvan didn't race for long in period with most of its work done in 1962, but it is now a regular fixture at major historic motorsport events such as the Goodwood Revival races and the Tour Auto recreation road rally. Plainly, though, it has appeared here and there enough times to provide a spark of inspiration for one rich car collector.

An anonymous car collector contacted London-based Dutch car designer, Niels van Roij, whose eponymous design company has recently been establishing something of a reputation for taking various cars and making their roofs longer – be it a Tesla or a Rolls-Royce. In my old job I got to see his previous works up close and I can vouch for his small but dedicated team's handiwork, including traditional coachbuilding techniques applied by Bas van Roomen.

Ordinarily at this point I'm used to taking you on a deep dive into the design process behind newly revealed cars, but for this project van Roij has been good enough to make a series of videos detailing every stage of the project. Here's one of them about the exterior:

In short, the 'Breadvan Hommage' is based on a Ferrari 550 Maranello, which has then been analysed inside and out, stripped down to its basic structure and thoughtfully reworked into a more contemporary Camionette festooned from nose to enlarged tail with visual references to the 1960s Drogo-bodied racecar.

The 550-based Breadvan Hommage, getting its icing piped on

With a project like this in which you're mashing designs from very different decades together, there is a balancing act between creating a clear visual link to the source material and yet still getting it to sit harmoniously on an altogether different donor-car platform. A straight copy forced onto different proportions could look awful and contrived, but take too much licence (or retain too much of the donor car) and it could become an apologetic or unconvincing instead – merely a weird facelift instead of a true hommage.

The Breadvan Hommage walks this tightrope reasonably well considering that even the 250-based original is an acquired taste in the first place. The front half, already low and pointy anyway, still looks like a 550 Maranello in profile, but with the new roof added this looks like a 550 wearing one of those low-drag cycling helmets.

Naturally it's the rear end that has had the most attention from the team and happily it's also the best resolved aspect, defined by long fast lines carrying a more modern tension while ultimately still forming a 'breadvan'.

The taillights are, I think, the OEM ones from the 550 donor car rearranged to be vertically stacked like those on the Drogo bodied 250, while the cat-flap rear window has been shaped to sit neatly with the forms and graphics around it, instead of being an exact copy of the very basic that'll-do '60s rectangle. The horizontal crease acting as a visual shelf for the glass hatch to sit on is a subtle but important finishing touch, as the blank space below it consequently looks more deliberate and defined.

Van Roij's sketches and videos show that it took countless iterations and detail refinements to arrive at this exact look – such as the gills behind the side window ultimately being arranged to be very similar to the original after trying several other options first. The level of visual refinement in the design has been carried through into sheet metal with matching levels of care and attention to detail in the coachwork.

For me, though, the front-end redesign is less convincing, even if I can see the thinking behind it. Maybe its cheekbones and underlying shape are too recognisably similar to the 550's original design (although fitting round headlights and towering shoulders over the front arches would've been going too far the other way, to be fair). The trapezoidal nostrils in the bonnet are a clear nod to those of the 250 GT Breadvan, while the headlights have been made into a narrower version of the 550's to help give graphic proportions closer to the old car's face.

But the glass dome over the standard V12 is the most dubious bit of the exterior; on the reference car it was necessary for housing the intake trumpets of the race-tuned Colombo engine, whereas here on the Hommage it isn't functional like that and thus feels a little gimmicky.

While the rear end is primarily defined by a small number of large sweeping elements, the nose just looks quite busy relative to both the all-new tail and to the standard Ferrari 550 design that's still visible under the changes.

Of course, there is also the interior to consider, and again there is a delicate balancing act to perform. As with the bodywork (for the same practical and safety-based reasons), they couldn't just cut out the dashboard structure and put a pure '60s replica in its place... but it was quickly decided that all the '90s plastic attached to it simply had to go. In its place is new leather, metal switchgear and air vent bezels, plus a much reduced centre console with only the glorious metal open-gate shifter and some essential buttons sitting separately on a diamond-stitched leather tunnel cover.

The door panel is a sympathetic redesign in itself, with the OEM arrangement of trim panels retained but the blocky grab handle taken off and a swooping metal-framed pull-string mechanism added between the trim panel seams in its place. The seats, meanwhile, are the original (and rare) 550 WSR optional carbonfibre buckets which came with the donor car, now re-trimmed in vibrant blue suede as a nod to the colour scheme seen in other 250 GT racecars (including, ironically, a 250 GTO).

No black horses on yellow backgrounds here. It's not wise to cross Enzo's successors either...

The further away from the transmission tunnel you get, the less radical the changes are. The buttons, switches, column stalks and rotary dials are all in the same places as before, but remade in solid metal, while the air vents have thick new bezels and the instruments have retro-chic new clock faces. The OEM 550 steering wheel was probably necessary to keep for its airbag, but aesthetically it's a large element that hasn't gone back in time like the elements around it have, which dents the illusion slightly.

Because it pays tribute to something unique, this too is a one-off vehicle, so if you wanted your own one then I'm afraid you're out of luck. If you aren't a fan of the conversion, by contrast, then don't worry about there being any more examples appearing in future.

The Breadvan Hommage won't go racing like its inspiration did, but what it does have in common with the racecar of revenge created by a small band of ingenious Italian rebels, is a love it or hate it uniqueness, a Ferrari V12 and a manual gearbox. Oh, and plenty of room in the back for fresh ciabatta loaves.

Thursday, 31 December 2020

2020

This year has been... 2020. You know what that means. We've all been through the same shitstorm this year, all around the world. Personally, we have been mercifully safe so far, but it's been at the cost of my job (via redundancies at a company which relied heavily on live events to keep the cashflow going) and all my career momentum with it... not to mention mental momentum. Everything has kicked off and gone apeshit all around the world, nothing makes sense anymore, nobody knows what to believe anymore, the passing of time has never meant less to any of us that it does now... and yet we still know to celebrate the New Year as if everything horrifying about right now has an expiry date of 1/1/2021.

But as is conventional at this changing of the year, we must put aside the existential dread of a global pandemic, the increasing success of disinformation campaigns and the realities of Brexit that are about to hit us like a freight train... and instead, we must recognise that we have survived another rotation of the Earth, commemorate those who did not, and look for optimism before putting up the new calendar we got for Xmas. We know now, much more acutely, who and what we value. We have a chance to reset some things in out lives and (hopefully, dear god...) in society. With vaccinations come a light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. At some point, everything that makes people anxious and wired all the time will subside and become past tense. We'll have a new Roaring Twenties as a result of what we're going through right now. It won't happen immediately, but it will happen inevitably. In the meantime, hang on and focus on controlling the controllables. That's all you can do for now.

Happy new year. Never stop looking for hope.

Thursday, 3 December 2020

Maybe It’s Not (Just) About Batteries After All?

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The past few days have been a bit bonkers for anyone following what’s going on in the world of motorsport. Take Formula 1 first: Romain Grosjean truly cheated death on Sunday and we’re all still recovering emotionally; Lewis Hamilton has contracted COVID-19; George Russell is getting temporarily promoted to Mercedes in his place (with Jack Aitken filling in at Williams in the meantime); Michael Schumacher’s son will ascend to F1 with HAAS, but only after Emerson Fittipaldi’s grandson has driven in Grosjean’s place for this weekend while the burnt Frenchman recovers… all these bombshells and it’s only Wednesday!

However, it’s not just within the 'Piranha Club' that interesting movements are afoot. Formula E’s pre-season testing has been going on this week in Valencia, and two significant announcements have landed from the electric single-seater series: Audi and BMW will both be pulling out of the championship at the end of the coming season.

BMW's Formula E car, yesterday

BMW’s withdrawal, announced this very evening in the wake of it also leaving DTM, was accompanied by the Bavarian behemoth commenting that “when it comes to the development of e-drivetrains, BMW Group has essentially exhausted the opportunities for this form of technology transfer.” 

This suggests that the tech allowed in Formula E (which isn’t as extreme as it could be, in a world of 2000hp electric hypercars, so as to control costs and keep it relatively accessible) is becoming too much of a limiting factor for car companies using motorsport to learn how to develop better road cars – in this case electric ones. BMW went on to say that “as the strategic focus of BMW Group is shifting within the field of e-mobility, we will now concentrate on a model offensive and series production in large quantities with [EV powertrains].”

The retired Volkswagen ID.R electric hillclimb car, yesterday

What’s especially interesting about the second part of that, is that it sounds as if they’re going to redistribute their talented engineers from the Formula E project elsewhere within the company to aid the development or production of those electric road cars – which is exactly the reasoning behind yet another significant announcement this week: that Volkswagen Motorsport is to cease all its factory racing programmes altogether, focusing wholeheartedly on bringing electric personal transportation to the masses.

Audi will withdraw its factory Formula E team, but continue supplying motors to customer teams

With all that in mind, though, let’s now circle back to Audi. Audi has been an integral part of the wider Volkswagen Automotive Group (VAG) for a long time, but unlike the parent brand its Formula E exit isn’t signalling a withdrawal from motorsport altogether. Instead – and seemingly of its own volition – it’s changing tack to focus on a new Dakar Rally project using an extended-range electric rally raid buggy (combining battery-electric drive with a small TFSI petrol engine acting as an onboard charger).

Alongside this, it is also returning to top-level endurance racing, which is very exciting. Having defined and dominated the LMP1 era of sports prototype racing, winning the Le Mans 24h thirteen times in seventeen years including maiden wins for diesel and e-hybrid power, Audi will soon enter the new ‘LMDh’ category that comprises half of a two-pronged system to replace LMP1 globally from next year onwards.

Some IMSA DPi cars, yesterday

Le Mans Daytona hybrid (LMDh) is a development of the American IMSA series’ current 'DPi' regulations that involve modifying and restyling a third party-supplied LMP2 chassis which is then powered by a manufacturer’s own engine (currently Mazda, Cadillac [GM] and Acura [Honda] race DPi cars in partnership with specialist LMP chassis builders and top-tier customer teams).

From 2022, LMDh will advance this concept in part by introducing a standardised electric energy recovery system (ERS) comprising a battery supplied by Williams Advanced Engineering and an electric motor supplied by Bosch. This set of rules allows the fiddly stuff that casual race fans aren’t overly bothered about to be sorted out in a somewhat quicker and less expensive way, while the looks and sounds (along with star factory drivers) come from the car manufacturers themselves. It’s highly interesting that Audi has chosen this route instead of the other one, which is the FIA World Endurance Championship’s new Le Mans Hypercar (LMH) category. Are there enough acronyms for you to keep track of yet, by the way?

The 2019 Toyota GR Super Sport concept hypercar, yesterday

WEC LMH allows car manufacturers (OEMs, you might call them) a bespoke chassis with significantly more freedom around aerodynamics, and seemingly the opportunity to develop an ERS in-house for a wholly integrated hybrid powertrain of the kind we saw in the last few years of LMP1. One assumes it is also, accordingly, that much more expensive. But, tantalisingly, it does seem to bring with it the likelihood of GT1-esque ‘street versions’ if the Toyota GR Super Sport concept car, ByKolles PMC LMH CAD renderings and Glickenhaus grand claim generator are to be taken seriously (sidenote: Aston Martin was initially building a V12 Valkyrie LMH for 2021, but then underwent a change in financial health, change of leadership and change of plans, so now it’ll run/brand the Stroll’s Plaything Formula 1 Team Powered by AMG, as it were, instead).

In any case, it was recently agreed that these more freely developed world championship machines would be of the same minimum weight and peak system horsepower as the cheaper and more standardised LMDh cars, and that this convergence of regulations will allow the two different recipes of prototype racer to compete directly against each other at the Le Mans 24 Hours.

Some Audis that won Le Mans a few years ago, yesterday

So, given that Audi spent the first 17% of the 21st century proving that it is well capable of building all-conquering endurance racers from scratch by itself – and had an updated R18 ready to go before Dieselgate forced their exit – why go the quick ‘n’ easy route this time instead? Well, it seems their main engineering focus will be on the Dakar entry, as that project appears to be fully in-house. Furthermore, if the idea of dressing up a third party chassis in your own house style and attaching a hot road car engine to a third party ERS makes the venture sound more superficial and marketing-driven, then the related paragraph of their press release backs up this mentality – specifically the lines “we have our customers’ wishes in mind as much as the company’s future strategy” and “the most important message for our fans is that motorsport will continue to play an important role at Audi.”

So yes, apparently they’re doing it as much to please all the road car customers who loved the R8, R10 TDI, R15 TDI and R18 e-tron quattro so much as for any other reason, by that logic at least. Not that I’m complaining! No doubt they loved those cars for themselves too, which surely helps.

Some Audi plug-in hybrids, yesterday

Perhaps, and I only speculate here, the halting of VW Motorsport has allowed Audi the freedom of movement to make these decisions without being micromanaged from above. But either way, the decision to leave a battery-only series and create two different hybrid racecars instead – one with an e-boosted engine and one with an engine-boosted e-drive – appears to more closely align with the present and near future of their road cars. Yes, we’re about to see the ‘baby Taycan’ all-electric Audi e-Tron GT arrive in production form and their learnings from Formula E have doubtless informed that car’s development and calibration, but the rest of their current range (bar an enormous e-SUV) still in some way relies on the combustion of liquid fuel.

The Audi electric Dakar buggy of tomorrow, yesterday

The Dakar buggy, whose engine merely supplements a battery-dependent drive system, could broadly be described as a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). The 2020s look to be both the biggest and in some places the last decade of this stepping-stone arrangement of technology, as the European automotive industry faces the double whammy of extremely strict fleet-average CO2 emissions from next year onwards, and the increasing number of governments planning to enforce wholesale bans on sales of fuel-burning new cars from the 2030s. Both of those mean that the sooner you ‘electrify’ your range of road cars through hybridisation and/or an electric-only version (see the Peugeot 208 model range, for instance, which offers both), the better… if people buy them.

However, while both battery tech and charging infrastructure are getting better and better with each year, or faster even, it remains the case that going all-electric still isn’t the best solution for every possible use case – and for people who can’t charge at home, who do long motorway journeys regularly, or who simply can’t afford an invariably expensive new e-car, it still isn’t sufficiently practical or viable (unless you go out of your own way to make it work, which most people won't). The issue of price is only getting more worrying the more we hear that the cost of battery tech is making low-end compact city cars ever harder to justify as a business case, given that the profit margins are vanishingly small already. There are only so many second-hand Renault Zoes to go around, after all.

A photo from Reddit, yesterday

For ‘legacy’ car manufacturers who have been building combustion cars since the 20th century and recognise that pure EVs still only represent a small (albeit rapidly growing) portion of overall car sales globally, that means that hybrids are the way to go until those government bans arrive – unless one is prepared to abruptly wipe out everything related to petrol and diesel engines you’ve ever had and reboot the entire business as an EV ‘startup’ of sorts, which… well, suffice to say nobody’s doing that. 

To bring all this observation back to Audi Sport, it means that there is an argument to be made for there being greater potential for ‘technology transfer’ in the (very) short term through hybrid racing. But only for the next five or ten years, right? After that, the combustion engine will finally be extinguished.

… Or will it?
Enter Porsche.

A Porsche 911 (991) GT3 RS fuel filler opening, yesterday

Porsche, also a part of VAG, mimicked Audi in quitting LMP1 in order to enter Formula E as a factory team a couple of years ago (it also canned a Formula 1 engine project, but I’ll not go there now), and as it stands they appear to still be committing to that. However, on this day of endless news, they released a press statement that seemingly flies in the face of any grand vision of a battery-powered future. It begins as follows (emphasis mine):

Porsche, Siemens Energy and a lineup of international companies are developing and implementing a pilot project in Chile that is expected to yield the world’s first integrated, commercial, industrial-scale plant for making synthetic climate-neutral fuels (eFuels).”

Now, synthetic fuel has been around for a long time and, in terms of adopting new propulsion methods, has the enormous advantage that it can be distributed in exactly the same way as petrol and diesel, into the same pumps. But you haven’t ever filled a car up with the stuff yourself for a few reasons. Firstly, for there to be any point in making a zero-greenhouse fuel, the processes involved in creating it must themselves be carbon neutral. Secondly, they’re currently estimated to be over four times as expensive at the pump compared to something like E85 biofuel (according to this useful Evo article). Thirdly, some argue that if you have an abundance of green energy, using it to convert chemicals into liquid fuel is less efficient than just putting it straight into a battery (so says Mercedes-Benz’s R&D boss, anyway).

A generic photo of some American traffic, yesterday

However, while that third argument might hold for the cars you’re about to make, it doesn’t answer for the cars that have already been made. Bosch, which has also been researching e-fuel, reckons half of the cars that will be on the road in 2030 are on the road right now, while discussions which followed the British government’s move to ban combustion-engine sales by that year have also included pointing out the need to ‘decarbonise’ the cars that are already in use, hybrid or not. 

This is where the e-fuel concept comes into the bigger picture, as well as for applications such as long-range aeroplanes, container ships (fun fact, the international shipping industry has about the same carbon footprint as Germany and has largely relied on much dirtier fuel than cars) and large trucks for which batteries that provide equal range to what’s possible with fossil fuels would be infeasibly large and heavy and expensive. Not to mention the accompanying demand for the mined materials which go into said batteries.

A 3D image of an e-fuel production plant, yesterday

Annoyingly though, before you get excited by the dream of pouring guilt-free fuel into a 911 GT3 Touring, it’s pretty difficult to attach any kind of clear and obvious timeline to that dream becoming a genuine reality for us all. Yes, Porsche talks about getting some made by 2022 and increasing production tenfold by 2026, but these are just projections for a facility that it seems isn’t up and running yet. Audi, ironically, produced its own e-diesel a few years ago and started running a limited number of its cars on the stuff, only for that whole experiment to go quiet after 2018. Parent company VW previously stated a desire to develop e-fuels yet is demonstrably throwing its seismic weight behind battery power more and more. 

Porsche has reportedly chosen to have a go at e-fuel off its own back, rather than as an order from above. Perhaps it wants to save the flat-six engines that have been core to its identity for so long and allow them to coexist alongside the likes of the award winning Taycan. But it looks from the outside like, unless Porsche and Siemens have made a necessary breakthrough, while e-fuel may be tantalisingly close it also seems to still not truly be here yet.

The Hyundai HDC-6 Neptune concept fuel cell truck, yesterday

In the meantime, those of us who love the diverse characters and more involving driving experiences of different combustion engines can only cross our fingers. The big signal here is that despite current messaging, the future of the automobile is not a one-dimensional future where batteries are the only option (I haven’t even approached the other industry push for hydrogen fuel cell trucks, especially by Hyundai). Hopefully one day, hydrogen and e-fuel won’t be perpetual visions of the future, but finally become factors of the present once and for all.

Until then, we can only expect more and more petrol-electric hybrids before 2030 – on the road and on the track.