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A Commentary on Formula 1′s
Regulatory Philosophy

August 27, 2014 by Matt

Ferrari F14T

So just because I haven't done my Formula 1 race reports since, oh, 2012 doesn't mean I haven't been following the sport.

Granted, it did get a bit boring last year when every team except Red Bull essentially gave up halfway through and allowed Sebastian Vettel and his RB9 to collect a stunning 9 consecutive wins through the final race of the season on his way to the championship. Still, so far, from a racing excitement standpoint, 2014 has been a banner year, with many riveting on-track battles and driver-vs-driver intrigue.

That said, despite the fact that the racing action has been very entertaining, for those of us who like to probe deeper and savor the more technical angle of the sport, the 2014 rules are more restrictive than ever, with some unintended results like the hideousness of the 2014 F1 cars shown in this post (from top: Ferrari F14T, Caterham CT05 and Lotus E22), the lower noses and higher bodywork around the front suspension area dictated by new impact protection regulations. And, true to form, the FIA's (F1's governing body) favorite way of solving a problem caused by over-regulation is to impose yet more rules: If you can believe it, there's been talk of mandating a specific taper to the nose cross-sections in order to improve the cars’ appearance. Who specified a required taper for F1 cars’ bodywork in, say, the mid-’80s? It’s yet another sign that the rules have gotten out of control.

Caterham CT05

I would be (mostly) fine with the regulatory oppressiveness if it only impacted external elements of the car like bodywork and aerodynamics. But the real tragedy is that mindset is crushing technical innovation under the cars’ skin. Once the pinnacle of automotive technology, the average hybrid family sedan is more sophisticated than an F1 car, what with variable valve timing, ABS, dual-clutch transmissions, traction control and other features banned from F1. This isn’t to take anything away from the execution of what’s allowed in the rulebook—what’s done is done to a staggering degree of perfection—but the tech behind it all peaked in the early ’90s. Sure, the FIA has introduced a hybrid 1.6l V6 turbocharged specification this year, but read the fine print and you’ll discover just how restrictive the rules are concerning everything from fuel flow and turbocharger orientation to cylinder bank angle and even the number of gearbox ratios. Formula 1 is for all intents and purposes a spec series, with a dozen or so manufacturers making what amount to nearly identical cars almost totally devoid of the kind of engineering creativity that we saw in past decades of F1. There’s a reason the period extending 20 years forward from the mid-’70s has been called F1′s golden age. The drivers were great and tamed their monstrously turbocharged mounts, but the variety of engine configurations on the grid on any given Sunday, the electronic sophistication that increased at a blistering rate—it was enough to satisfy those of us interested in more than just the mere “spectacle” of drivers going wheel-to-wheel around a circuit. The technical creativity on display fascinated us, made us dream. With fewer rules, F1 felt more…complete, fulfilling. Now? There’s precious little to get excited about under the cars’ bodywork.

2014 Lotus E22 F1 Formula 1 One

The solution? Fewer rules. Give the teams some basics and then let them go at it. Let them innovate from within; don’t impose “progress” from the outside. What about development costs? Wouldn’t they skyrocket? Not necessarily—give the teams a budget cap and apply the same diligence used in enforcing the current rulebook toward a strict interpretation of what’s allowed to be billed in the teams’ budgets. I think it can be done—but it won’t. F1 is a business, and there are far more paying fans that don’t give two licks about what makes the cars go, but just want to see an exciting race, than there are those of us who geek out on the technical side of the sport, and the at-times thrilling wheel-to-wheel action on the track this year will be taken as a vindication of the current regulatory path. Sadly, I think the kind of outside-the-box technical thinking of years past has been banished from F1 forever, and the sport is the poorer for it.

Image credits: f1technical.net, rssportscars.com, formula1.com

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Datsun 240Z Restoration:
…And the Engine Comes Out

August 20, 2014 by Matt

Datsun 240Z restoration engine motor l24 engine removal

Figured I would give you all an update, even though there are fairly significant changes to the project coming down the pike. But more on that in a future post.

After towing the Z over the Appalachians on a car carrier behind my new truck, I ensconced it in our new garage here in Tennessee. And eager to make a little progress on the project, a few months ago I removed all the peripheral bits, fired up the engine hoist and pulled the engine and transmission.

It was a very straightforward job. Nothing jumps out in my memory as a particularly difficult task. Even the exhaust manifold-to-downpipe bolts, encrusted with 40+ years of rust, once soaked overnight with a generous dose of PB Blaster, loosened easily after getting a good set with a 6-point socket.

Datsun 240Z restoration engine motor l24 engine removal

One challenge was finding a couple of locations to actually hoist the engine from. The engine was rebuilt sometime in the mid-’90s, and apparently, at some point, the engine hoist brackets were removed from their usual locations, so I had to improvise with a pair of long bolts threaded into suitable locations on the cylinder head. But it all went smoothly; the engine and transmission came apart just fine, but I did have to remove the flywheel in order to be able to mount the engine on a stand, where it sits now in our garage.

I’ve been referencing Wick Humble’s classic How to Restore Your Datsun Z-Car as a sort of loose guide for the project, and removing the engine was the first step in the disassembly process. The next series of steps involve removing more mechanical organs before unbolting fenders and other body panels, but it’s an open question at this point as to whether I’ll be doing that. More to come.

Editor’s note: This post is Part 21 of an ongoing series chronicling my efforts toward the restoration of my 1972 Datsun 240Z, originally my father’s. Read the other installments here:

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A Styling Comparison:
New BMW 2-Series Vs. Old 1-Series

August 12, 2014 by Matt

BMW 2-Series Red

BMW 1-Series 135i Orange Maroon Bronze E82 Coupe

Call it the anti-Peter Pan treatment.

With the replacement of the outgoing BMW 1-Series by the new, more upscale 2-Series, the Bavarian automaker “grows up” the styling, with less-than-successful results.

The differences between the generations are somewhat subtle, but impossible to dismiss once discovered. The most obvious 2-Series upgrade comes at the front end, where the headlights squint amid more surface detailing. At the rear, the 1-Series’ C-pillar makes a more pronounced break with the trunklid in comparison to that of the 2-Series, which flows and tapers together. And proportionally, the new car sits lower and looks larger, having lost the older BMW’s somewhat controversial “dipped” rocker panel.

The effect of the aesthetic changes reinforces a styling and character similarity between the 2-Series and its big brother, the 4-Series. And while that may be desirable from a marketing standpoint, where a salesman can more easily sell a 2-Series to a customer aspiring to “upgrade” to a 4 at some point, the changes have robbed the baby BMW of much of what made the 1 so distinctive.

BMW 2-Series White

BMW 1-Series 135i E82 White Coupe Rear

Sure, the older car may look a bit more awkward on first glance, but at least it’s confident in its awkwardness; it’s not striving to be something it’s not. The 2-Series seems like it’s trying too hard to emulate the larger 4-Series, while the 1 is simply happy to be a small car. Furthermore, the superficial ungainliness of the older car recalls the great upright BMWs of the ’70s and ’80s like the 2002, E21 and E30. Those cars look aggressive and distinctive precisely because their lack of aerodynamic, flowing lines. They look agile, eager and above all, confident—appealing qualities projected by the 1-Series and lost, or at least muted, in its successor.

I suppose, in the end, it all boils down to a matter of taste: How would you like your small BMW served? Mature and swoopy or playful and pugnacious?

Full disclosure: The 1-Series is one of my all-time favorite BMWs, and one of the few post-E46 BMWs I would consider. A 6-speed manual, Blue Water Metallic 128i with the Sport package is very high on my bucket list of cars to own.

Image credits: motortrend.com, bmwheaven.com, netcarshow.com

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Station Wagon Perceptions

August 6, 2014 by Matt

Buick Roadmaster Station Wagon

The above represents the mental image my wife conjures whenever I utter the term “station wagon.”

It’s sad, really. I’ve had to accept it as one of those areas where “never the twain shall meet,” since when I think of a station wagon, or more commonly use manufacturer-specific terms like Touring (BMW) or Avant (Audi), I visualize vehicles along the lines of the late, great RS2 Avant.

Ford Taurus Station Wagon Rear

Speak to many folks, and while the more practical ones will concede the advantages of a wagon over, say, a regular sedan, I’m not sure their image of the body style is quite in line with the typical enthusiast perception. As for the rest of the driving population, well… My wife’s attitude toward the station wagon is probably pretty typical. It preceded the minivan, which inherited its soccer mom and neutered male connotations, associations which, in America, rather unfairly, the station wagon has never lived down.

Car buffs, for our part, tend to adopt the European mindset: The station wagon is simply the sign of a practical owner, full stop; there are no negative connotations to overcome. The body style is liberated to accept whatever capability its manufacturer choose to bestow upon it, from cheap and slow to range-topping road-eaters like the Cadillac CTS-V Wagon, Audi RS6 Avant (never sold here, sadly) and to a lesser degree, the Dodge Magnum. Even Subaru got into the act, initially offering their third-generation WRX STI only as a wagon. Enthusiasts see the body style as just another possible shape for a performance car, as valid as any sports sedan or coupe—in a sense, even more so, since the practical nature of the wagon introduces an appealing “sleeper” element to the car’s perception.

All that said, I’ve made my peace with the fact that it’s unlikely my wife’s concept of the station wagon will ever nudge closer to the more open-minded view we enthusiasts take. That’s fine; at least there are performance cars in plenty of other body styles to choose from.

Image credits: thecarconnection.com, sunautoworld.com

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400 Horses for a 2017 Mazda RX-7?

July 30, 2014 by Matt

Mazda 16X New Rotary Wankel Engine Motor

With a rumor mill almost as productive as the one prophesying the return of the Toyota Supra, the latest scoop from the “new RX-7″ cloud of unsubstantiated gossip foresees 400+ horsepower from a next-generation rotary powerplant.

People tend to forget that car specifications—power, weight, grip and the like—are driven more by what market niche the car is intended to fill rather than what’s technically possible. So let’s assume for a moment, contrary to all actual and official evidence, that Mazda really does plan to unveil a true RX-7 successor in the next few years. A better way to speculate about the new car’s eventual output would be to “think like a marketer” and determine which corner of the sports car spectrum the car would be designed to occupy. I can think of three possible targets for Mazda’s new performance flagship:

  1. Toyota/Subaru GT86/BRZ competitor: Unlikely. The Toyotaru Twins offer slightly better performance than Mazda’s own Miata but adhere to a similar “driver-first” ethos. Making what amounts to a marginally faster hardtop Miata with a rotary engine would be a lot of fun, and would take advantage of the current mini-backlash against the current crop of overpowered, inert speed appliances, but fundamentally, such an approach would still edge too closely to the Miata’s territory.
  2. Pony car / Corvette killer: The article alludes to this possibility when it conjectures that a new RX-7 would “seriously challenge the Porsche 911.” The problem with this theory is that the high-end performance car market segment is currently engaged in a DEFCON 1, no-holds-barred arms race, outputs soaring above 600 hp with roadholding to match. In theory, Mazda could make a strong showing in this category by replicating yet amplifying the third-generation RX-7 formula: A high-strung turbocharged rotary offering competitive power in a lightweight chassis with hair-trigger reflexes. They certainly have the technical chops. But the matter of resources rears its ugly head: The automaker simply doesn’t have the capital to develop and support such a car on a mass-production scale. The fact that residents of this market segment like the Mustang, Corvette, Viper and Camaro are upping the power ante practically ever other week doesn’t help either. Besides, this niche is the obvious choice, and while Mazda’s approach to it would be unique, I’d like to think their target selection would be a little more…nuanced.
  3. Porsche Cayman / Nissan 370Z alternative: This makes more sense. Does it basically take over from where the RX-8 left off? Yes—but with the power and styling the RX-8′s chassis always deserved. If an RX-7 successor can take what actually worked about the ’8—and given Mazda’s track record, there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t—and shore up the areas in which it was deficient, sharpening the car’s focus by axing the back seats and giving us a bonafide sports car, they might have a winner on their hands. Here’s the recipe for success in this niche: A direct-injected, 300+ hp rotary; 2 seats; perfect (and I do mean perfect) looks, transcendent driving dynamics and a curb weight under 3,000 lbs. The time is ripe; the 370Z’s basic platform has been around since 2003 and has always been somewhat awful when pushed to 10/10s. And while the Cayman is as dead-nuts perfect as a sports car can be, it’s been rampaging alone in its market segment for far too long. It’s time, Mazda.

Image credits: hkcarworld.com

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Swedish Bolide: Saab Sonett III

April 22, 2014 by Matt

Saab Sonett Sonnet Sonnett Sonet III 3 Green

I think it’s time to feature another barely-imported, obscure-yet-cool classic. I considered putting the Sonett III in my FWD Champions series, but somehow—I can’t quite put my finger on the exact reason—the car just doesn’t manage to elevate itself into that category. I’ve already featured the original Saab 900; maybe one Saab is enough? Who knows.

Saab Sonett Sonnet Sonnett Sonet III 3 Orange

Regardless, the Sonett III, a front-wheel-drive coupe produced by the Swedish automaker between 1970 and 1974, ticks more than enough of the boxes on its “cool” application. It’s rare, classically quirky, not unattractive in a sort of hybrid Scandinavio-Italian way and blessed with an uncommon engine configuration: A 1.7l, Ford-sourced V4 blessed with 65 pavement-rippling horsepower. Fortunately, they only had 1,950 lb to haul around, so the 0-60 time of around 13 seconds, while glacial by today’s standards, was at least semi-peppy for its day.

Saab Sonett Sonnet Sonnett Sonet III 3 Engine Motor

Like the Corvette or contemporary Opel GT, the body is constructed of fiberglass mated to a metal frame. While lightweight and trendy, the material had some problems: Saab’s relative inexperience with mass-production of fiberglass meant that most cars left the factory with slight (but perceptible) waves in the bodywork. Also, just because the body panels were made of a rust-free material didn’t mean the chassis couldn’t be afflicted with automotive cancer; indeed, rust is a major concern for those looking for a good Sonett III on the market today. Furthermore, the needs of the material meant the all-of-a-piece front bodywork only allowed a small door for engine access, a real bummer for maintenance and service.

Saab Sonett Sonnet Sonnett Sonet III 3 Dash Cockpit Console Interior Inside

The owner of the car shown above has added additional instrumentation below the center console, but the aircraft-inspired quirkiness of the Sonett III’s interior is still apparent. Note the pull handle operating the manually-concealed headlights, the clear bank of instruments and the large red buttons to the left of the steering wheel. It’s clean and very cockpit-like.

Saab Sonett Sonnet Sonnett Sonet III 3 Console

Naturally, against all common sense, I really like the car and would love to own one. I admire the little details like the sliders and toggle switches on the console, the ultra-wide 5-bolt lug pattern and the “cupped” door handles. And I appreciate the car’s overall proportions, which make it look like absolutely nothing else on the road. Add a dash of handling flair, and rarity—only a little over 8,000 were made; with an unknown percentage of that making the trip to the US—and I’m sold.

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Is Audi’s Design in a Rut?

March 20, 2014 by Matt

2012 Audi A5 White

“Awfully familiar” is how a recent Car and Driver article described the evergreen A5/S5′s looks, now its 7th model year. And yet in the final tally, the Audi ended up with only a 1-point deficit in the “Exterior Styling” category to the brand-new, sultry BMW 435i. Audi’s designs have staying power; that much is certain. But in spite of their objective attractiveness, is it time to move on to a different, or at least more significantly updated set of visual themes?

Audi S3 Red

The conservative looks of the new A3/S3 sedan could be construed as evidence the automaker is out of ideas. Aside from various detail updates, the car looks like an 75% facsimile of Audi’s current-generation (and rather long in the tooth) A4. It looks buttoned-down, tasteful, taut and sporty, but isn’t it time to push the styling envelope a bit?

It’s risky to introduce new themes to such an established brand, and the industry is replete with failed examples of automakers attempting to roll out a fresh new look for their lineup, most recently Lexus with their hideous “hourglass” grille shape.

Success stories do exist, however; recall Mercedes’ transition to oval headlights in the ’90s and more recently Jaguar’s jettisoning of basically their entire classic design vocabulary with the XF and XJ. In both cases, the automakers’ efforts were well-received and unlocked new styling possibilities across their respective model ranges.

2015 Audi TT Coupe Blue

2015 Audi TT Coupe Blue Rear

As far as Audi is concerned, small indications exist that they’re trying to move beyond the current design playbook. With its revamped fascia, the new 3rd-generation TT gives glimpses of what a new styling direction could be like, even if the rest of the car actually takes a stylistic step backward in apeing the 1st generation car more than its immediate predecessor; the rear fenders and overall profile look like they haven’t shifted a millimeter in the past 10 years. Granted, it’s difficult to improve on a shape that was acclaimed as a design icon when it was released, but still, coupes are most brands’ styling vanguards; Audi could stand to be a little more radical without “endangering” sales of their bread-and-butter models.

Rumors are flying of a new Sport Quattro coupe; here’s hoping that serves to introduce a positive new design direction.

Image credits: netcarshow.com

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