Monday, June 30, 2014

Bentley GT3 scores second win in a row!

(Circuit Paul Ricard, 29th June 2014)

After scoring an historic victory at Silverstone last month, the #7 M-Sport Bentley Continental GT3 of Guy Smith, Andy Meyrick and Steven Kane finished first in the third round of the Blancpain Endurance Series at the Paul Ricard circuit in southern France, for the team’s second victory in a row. With the victory, Smith, Meyrick and Kane move in to the lead in the overall drivers’ championship standings ahead of the Series’ headline event at the 24 Hours of Spa at the end of July.

In the dusk light of the track at Le Castellet, Steven Kane powered his way to victory with a narrow lead of just 1.1 seconds after three hours of racing, in a race that demanded the very best from both the Continental GT3 and its trio of drivers. The fight for the win dominated the third and final hour-long stint of the race, with the gap between the #7 car and the ART McLaren of Parente, Demoustier and Lapierre varying between six seconds and less than one second.


Saturday, June 28, 2014

Tree-Tech & Carbon-Tech - A Combination of Great Ideas!

Today I want to write about two of the most useful pieces of technology research recently revealed to the public.

First is the material known as GRAPHENE, a material that is only ONE atom thick, highly flexible and able to transmit 97% of light, and at the same time it's a super-conducter.

The technical explanation of the material and how it's formed is complex, but we will probably see it first emerge commercially, when used in screens for smartphones and televisions.

The flexibility of Graphene has to be seen to be believed!

However, much more in depth research being conducted in China and Korea suggests it can also be eventually used to store electricity far more efficiently than batteries, which could mean a whole new future for electric cars!

Second, it's very pleasing that Australia is at the cutting edge of developing biofuels from Mallee Gum trees.

The technology has already been proven, and all that remains is to scale up the test programs to be commercially profitable - and that is only a few years away.

Virgin Airlines and Airbus have already signed joint venture agreements to develop and use biofuel from Mallee Gums!

The biggest concern Australians should have, is to hope that our current federal government and opposition are SMART enough to see the opportunities in this technology to produce a lot of new jobs, and also cut jet airplane emissions by up to 15%.

Mallee Gum forests grow wild in many parts of Australia, but sustainable quantities are mostly being grown in Western Australia (to assist the pilot production facility). Mallee Gums are easy to grow, harvest and cultivate sustainably, and in some parts of the world are considered a 'weed' and a lot of money is being spent trying to eradicate them - in South Africa for example. Many of these countries could quickly turn from spending money on eradication, to harvesting, for creation of biofuels.

This may not sound sexy, but these two technologies hold a huge amount of potential in terms of reducing greenhouse emissions, creating cost-effective savings in consumer goods prices, increasing efficiency, and creating jobs. Let's hope politicians around the world can embrace them!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Power of Aston Martin - Successful Heart Transplants!

Even though Ford Motor Company sold off Aston Martin to a group of equity investors, who installed Ulrich Bez as CEO, the bonds with the Blue Oval ran deep in the veins of the tiny British company.

Where on earth would Aston Martin find the funds to develop engines which could deliver Bez’s vision of power and performance?

Answer – Heart Transplants. In the Bez plan there needed to be two engines; a powerful top shelf multi-cylinder, and a smaller, lighter V8. The solution came from the Ford catalogue, and the Aston Martin engineers, aided in a very able fashion by Cosworth came up with just the right combination.

Aston Martin V12
The famous V12, is basically two Ford Duratec V6 engines lined up one behind the other; and genisis for the Vantage V8 is basically Jaguar’s AJ26 V8.

Aston Martin V8
Mind you, these donor designs are just basic block and bore centres. Aston Martin, in conjunction with FordWerke AG in Cologne, and Cosworth in England, built completely unique powerplants with all the performance outputs demanded by Dr. Bez’s plans and vision.

Aston Martin One-77
The Cosworth-fettled V12 is used in Aston Martin’s own supercar, the One-77; whilst the V8 started life in the Vantage road-car, before helping create successful race cars for motor sport customers.

Aston Martin V8 Vantage GT2
However, as Dr. Bez departs the company he tirelessly built and shaped into today’s highly-successful enterprise, he has delivered another life-saving injection.
Mercedes-Benz AMG 'Black' V8
In July 2013 Aston Martin confirmed that it would switch to a new V8 engine provided by Mercedes-Benz AMG, in a similar arrangement to that which the German company has with Italian Supercar company Pagani. In addition, Mercedes-Benz will take a 5% stake in Aston Martin.

The V8 engines will appear in new, yet-to-be-announced models, and will not supplant the current engines, but it will allow Aston Martin to meet stringent new emissions rules, while delivering power outputs that could get Aston Martins up alongside Porsche.

As the emission regulations tighten further, the company may also use an AMG-derived straight six engine, for the first time since the old DB models.

The squabbling investors can acknowledge Ulrich Bez's vision again, for having the foresight to solve a major problem before it reared its head!
Geneva 2011

On behalf of the battling Board members and Aston Martin owners around the globe, I thank you Ulrich.
Well done!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Aston Martin - Heading for a s-l-o-w, lingering death?

Sad news from Gaydon, Warwickshire. It is necessary for me to write an obituary for Aston Martin, as we know it today. I hope I am wrong.

The success of Aston Martin, both the cars and the company, is down to one man - Ing. Dr. Ulrich Bez. If ever there was a round peg in a round hole, he was it!

In 2000, then Ford Motor Company CEO Jac Nasser, asked Dr. Bez to take over Aston Martin and try to save it. At one point in its history it went bankrupt, and later Ford poured millions into the company and never saw anything for it.
Ing. Dr. Ulrich Bez, Aston Martin headquarters, Gaydon, Warwickshire, UK
What Aston Martin needed was a visionary engineer, and Uli Bez is the full package. True, he can be a teensy bit tyrannical, and single-minded, but he literally DROVE the success of Aston Martin.

Aided by the great cars penned by Henrik Fisker, the DB9 and Vantage, Bez pushed, bullied, and bashed the tiny company into shape, and eventually succeeded in setting up its acquisition from Ford in 2007 with help from two like-minded investors from Kuwait and the USA.

Martine & Ulruch Bez, Geneva 2014
When I met my friend Ulrich Bez and his charming wife, Martine, in Geneva in March, he told me he would be leaving the company!

To say I was devastated is understatement. We have been friends for more than 20 years, and I know intimately how Dr. Bez guided, shaped and built the success of the tiny sports car company.

The fact is that the current investors are completely divided on how Aston Martin should be run, and literally forced Bez out. Is he happy to leave? Probably not, but at least he escapes the divisive atmosphere that now pervades the Boardroom. Currently there is NO CEO, the Italian and Arab investors can't decide on an appropriate candidate!

Aston Martin could be a headless chicken, if it wasn't for the stalwart, loyal and talented people employed by Bez, who are still there (trying to survive the craziness) doing their jobs, making great cars, and keeping some soul in the place.

Make no mistake. Ulrich Bez is a very, very unusual man. He is a gifted engineer (who worked for Porsche, BMW, Daewoo, Ford/Aston Martin), he is a canny production designer, a smart businessman, a skilled racing driver, an innovative thinker - who can, frustratingly at times, always be right!

Photo - European Car magazine

Every car he touched - the Porsche 959, the BMW Z1, the Daewoo range, and then the recent Aston Martins have been incredibly successful.

He has leveraged Aston Martin's wonderful history and past successes, embraced famous names like Stirling Moss,
Ulrich Bez and Sir Stirling Moss
and built a modern legacy of which today's Aston Martin can be truly proud.

Aston Martin owners all over the world can thank him for just being himself, and giving them cars they can enjoy owning and driving, and they too will be shocked by this news.

It is the end of an era - without doubt the most successful era in the company's 101 year history.

Under Ulrich Bez, Aston Martin has sold more than 50,000 cars in 13 years, over three times more than the company sold between 1913-2000!

Ulrich Bez is probably not happy to see me post this piece, for fear of helping to erode what he has built. However, I for one, appreciate the job he did at Aston Martin. It is the crowning glory on a distinguished career, and it's important to me that his achievements and contribution are recognized.

I want to see Aston Martin survive this hiccup and continue its great traditions. Let's all hope my forecast is premature!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Truly Sporting Lexus? Really, it's true!

There's no doubt Toyota has made a great success with its Lexus marque, and the slow, deliberate, expansion of the model portfolio is an object lesson in how to build a brand from scratch.

I vividly remember when I started at Jaguar Cars North America in 1990, how the Lexus LS400 sent a shiver down the spine of the 'smart' guys in the Luxury sector of the market.
Lexus LS 400
We could all see what a threat this badge posed for the established names. Maybe not so much in the first three years or so, but steadily, Toyota has built a brand image and credentials which has ensured Lexus a faithful following of return customers.

That's the true measure of commercial success - how many come back again.

The marque began with a reputation for solid, dependable, luxuriously-appointed cars - which in dynamic terms were competent, but boring. So Toyota set out to broaden the image with a more sporting theme so it could capture some Jaguar, Audi and BMW owners.

There have been concept cars, and a couple of clearly roarty 'specials'.

Now a very accomplished model, the GS 350 f-Sport.


Earlier this year I drove one in Florida (which offers no place for a true test of performance and handling), God the roads are boring!

However, the car really impressed. It is beautifully-appointed, and the interior and dash are a piece of exemplary design, efficiency and an incredibly detailed level of impeccable finish.

The performance (such as I could sample) was really excellent. A full-throated roar from the exhaust, a great power/torque curve combination; tons of acceleration, and very responsive steering and handling.

For anyone looking for a really competent, attractive and high performance alternative to boring - then the Lexus GS 350 f-Sport is the car. It'll be a safe investment (meaning strong residual value), and you'll love driving it.

However, as I am a 'styling junkie' the evolution of the design is very interesting. It is only this latest model which was designed 'in-house' - but it hasn't strayed too far from Job One.

For the first model, the GS 300 (2004) - Toyota turned to Ital Design in Torino, and the Giugiaro team did what often happens among Italian design houses - they recycled a previous concept.
Jaguar Kensington by Ital Design

Back in 1990 Ital Design offered Jaguar a concept car, which it hoped the Coventry company would embrace. Alas, Jaguar declined, mostly because its own 'man' Geoff Lawson was a pretty dab hand at putting charcoal to paper.

Giorgetto Giugiaro

It's history now that Ital Design recycled the Kensington concept into four design commissions - The Leganza for Daewoo; the Aristo for Toyota; the Toledo for SEAT; and the GS300 for Lexus.

Here's a graphic illustration of the evolution of the Lexus version:
Lexus GS 300

Lexus GS 350
Lexus GS 350 f-Sport

All this pedantic detail aside, however, if you have a chance to drive the Lexus GS 350 f-Sport, I'm confident you'll really enjoy it - on the right road!

Friday, June 20, 2014

TOURING - The Smuggler's Coast

Those of us brought up on English childrens' books will recall tales of smugglers slipping in and out of secluded bays at many places along the English coast, but none more so than under the rugged cliffs of Dorset.

Smuggling was big business there up to the 19th century, with small boats putting out to sea under cover of darkness to meet ships coming over from France to transfer their contraband.

I was one of those kids who romanticised the stories, and when the opportunity came to cruise the Dorset coast roads, back in 1997, in a Jaguar XK coupe, it seemed like a very appropriate thing to do, and it delivered vivid memories.

Not only of the rugged coastline, but the great driving roads, and a bunch of tiny villages with silly names, like Puddletown, Piddlehinton, Affpuddle, Droop, Toller Porcorum and Haselbury Plucknett.

We made a base at the coastal town of Lyme Regis, which received its royal charter from Edward 1st in 1284. There's no natural harbour, so back in the 1250s the locals built an ambitiously-conceived breakwater, constructed by driving massive oak tree trunks into the seabed and filling between them with huge local rocks. It was called 'The Cobb' and managed to hold the sea at bay and create a safe harbour.

Mind you, the original Cobb only lasted 570 years, and had to be rebuilt in order to house fishing and pleasure craft.

All of the main hotels in Lyme Regis are on the waterfront, and there's plenty of B&Bs scattered throughout the town. Mind you, it's not a huge place, the main street is only 500 metres long!

It's famous for fresh seafood, and you can get all the usual delicacies, but the cod and sole are fantastic!
Hurry along though, because even back in 1997, the local fisherman told me there were already signs that the local waters were being fished-out.

I'm going to highlight only three hotels - The Cobb Arms, the Bay Hotel and the Hotel Alexandra. Of the three, I'd book at The Cobb Arms. The Bay Hotel is right on the harbourfront, but no lift, no parking and expensive, and the Hotel Alexandra has a prime spot overlooking the Cobb, but the food and lodgings are way overpriced.
The Cobb Arms

The Bay Hotel
Hotel Alexandra
The drive from Heathrow to Lyme Regis took about three and a half hours, travelling down the M3, then A303, until reaching Honiton, then you take the A35 back (east) to Lyme Regis.

That's the quickest way, but if you want to dawdle and take in local tourist spots, you can break off the A303 just west of Andover, and take the A338 into Salisbury; then the A354 down through Sixpenny Handley, Blandford Forum, and Dorchester, before picking up the A35, and going to Lyme Regis via Bridport.

Once based in Lyme Regis, it's best to take day trips to explore the surrounding area. Grab a map and draw a line west to east, parallel with the south coast from Taunton in the West, to Shaftesbury in the East, and within that part of Dorset will be enough great driving roads (and leafy lanes), plus picturesque villages, and great pubs to keep you occupied for a week.

'The Giant Man' near Cerne Abbas
Returning to home base from Yeovil, down the A37, you'll pass 'The Giant' which is a huge figure carved eons ago into the chalk hillside, near Cerne Abbas.

Lyme Regis played a big part in British naval history, because it was from here that Sir Francis Drake first engaged the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Between 1780 and 1830, is when the area won its reputation as a smugglers' playground. The Customs agents used to keep watch from the great cliffs at Charmouth, trying to apprehend the nefarious boatmen.

Chesil Beach, between Lyme Regis and Charmouth

If you take yourself to the clifftops early in the morning, the sea mist swirls around eerily, and the silence is only broken by the mournful sound of fog horns and the plaintive cry of seabirds.
Lyme Regis

There's so much great touring to do all over England, but this relatively quiet and undiscovered part of the south west is certainly worth investigating.

The 'old' Sherbrooke Castle, once lived in by Sir Walter Raleigh

Thursday, June 19, 2014

TOURING - Badia di Orvieto, Italy

I usually reserve restaurant reviews for (username:crawfz), but I do recall a memorable lunch in 1976, which was so good I thought you might like to try this place next time you’re in Italy.

A few years ago, driving our cute Fiat Bravo, we toured the walled city of Orvieto, about two hours north of Rome and just a few minutes west from the A1 autostrada.

The city is in a fabulous location with commanding views of the Umbrian countryside, but it’s tiny, and a full tour will take no more than an hour.

Descending to the plain below, you drive back along the Via del Sette Martiri towards the A1, then hang a right onto Strada Bagnorese, and then go a couple of kilometres west, and left onto the Strada Provinciale 111, until you come to the beautiful La Badia Ristorante and Abbey.

The original abbey was built in the 6th century, but time and decay saw it crumble, and a replacement was built in the 12th century.

For almost 300 years the Badia di Orvieto belonged to the noble Umbrian family descending from Saint Claire of Assisi, the Counts Fiumi di Sterpeto.

It was acquired privately in the 1960s and a full restoration of the house and the abbey was begun. It’s now a luxurious four-star hotel, and the restaurant still gets rave reviews.
Hotel La Badia
I can’t remember the details of the 1976 menu, but the meal was sensational accompanied by crisp white Orvieto Classico wine.

Ristorante La Badia
I do remember being told by our host to hurry up and finish the lunch, as we had a two-hour drive ahead to Firenze, and if we weren’t sharpish, we’d be late for dinner!

Ah, the Italians certainly have their priorities right.