Tuesday, September 24, 2019

WHAT A COMBINATION - RUBENS, A RED CAR AND RED-HOT RACING!


Rubens Barrichello tells me he is in love.

And his smile, passion for racing and infectious enthusiasm is clear evidence that he means it.

We're talking, on a fine Spring Sunday, at Melbourne's Sandown Park raceway.

He is back in Australia for the first time since he called time on his Formula One career, after serving in the front lines with Ferrari and Brawn and scoring 11 wins despite running for a long time as Michael Schumacher’s sidekick.

Rubinho, as he is nicknamed because he is ‘little Rubens', is now 47 years old but has the enthusiasm and boyish charm of someone half his age. When he talks about his son, Eduardo, he smiles and smiles.

As he reports the details of his return down under, he mentions a visit to Tickford Racing where he checked out one of the Mustangs that is starring in Supercars racing, as well as a return trip to Melbourne zoo, and also a once-in-a-lifetime VIP visit to an AFL preliminary football final between Melbourne and Geelong. The TV channels zoom in on the newest Richmond Tigers fan, and Rubens also gets to visit ‘the rooms’ after his side advances to the grand final against Greater Western Sydney.

But none of these things have stolen Rubens’ heart. That belongs to car 111, which is sitting in the pitlane at Sandown Park, and carrying the speedy Brazilian through the debut weekend of the all-new S5000 single-seater series.


It’s red, like his Ferraris, and it is fast. The digital readout in the identical car of Tim Macrow, who is the pacesetter through most of the Sandown weekend is reading 271km/h as he flashes past the grandstand where Aussie fans once watched Stirling Moss, Graham Hill, Jim Clark and Jack Brabham doing their thing in the Tasman Series during the 60s and 70s.

This weekend, Rubens has arrived from Brazil - thanks to a deal brokered by his friend, old mate, and former manager of Nelson Piquet, Greg ‘Peewee’ Siddle - as the guest star for S5000.

There are 13 cars in the Sandown garages thanks to everyone from Chris Lambden, who had the original idea to revive Formula 5000 from the seventies with a modern twist; to Brian Boyd, the backer of the Australian Racing Group which has S5000s in a line-up that also includes TCR hot hatches; and Garry Rogers, whose crew has assembled and finessed the cars.

We don’t need to get into too much detail, but the cars are modern and fast. 

They have a carbon fibre chassis, a V8 Ford ‘crate’ motor that makes 420 kiloWatts, and an F1-style halo to protect the driver.

When they fire up for the first time on Friday, there is emotion everywhere. Old-timers have their memories re-ignited and youngsters are creating new ones.

“It’s in our blood. It’s just a great feeling to be able to conquer the world and have new things,” Rubens says.
“It’s been more and more fun to drive the car every day.”
Barrichello is up against plenty of youngsters through three races over the weekend and it's one of them, James Golding, who claims the biggest prize on Sunday.

He as been buried in the Supercars pack but emerges as a fast star in S5000.

“I really enjoyed it. I had some great racing,” Golding tells me.

It’s bittersweet because the race is stopped early, after a giant smash when Alex Davison goes into the fence.

But he walks away from the crash in the final proof-of-concept for the weekend.

The cars have arrived, they have run almost trouble-free, they have been fast and noisy and racy, and they have been safe.

But James Golding (right) is thrilled with his win, and although contracted to the Supercars series, he tells me he is very keen to get back behind the wheel of an S5000 open wheeler.

Barrichello is the guest star and everyone, including my three-year-old great nephew Harry, gets a fist bump from Rubens on the grid.


On Sunday evening, as Davison’s car is being swept up and the adrenalin is fading, and a surprisingly-large crowd is heading for home, Rubinho has some words of wisdom.

“The message is positive. We had plenty of positives this weekend,” he says, obviously pleased with his second place finish.

So, will he be back when the S5000s join the program for the Australian Grand Prix next March?

“It’s almost like asking a monkey if he wants a banana. I love this. It doesn't matter if you have to travel 25 hours.”

I will be there, too. Just like Barrichello, and everyone else at Sandown, I am smitten.


Monday, September 23, 2019

DRIVEN PERSONALITIES - GERRY McGOVERN

Gerry McGovern is having a great time in Frankfurt at the Media Preview.

The Land Rover Defender is finally public and he can relax and enjoy himself.
There is little sign of arrogance, no bluster, and just a quiet comfort with an impressive job of work.

“Am I nervous? No. Not at all,” Gerry tells me in a whisper, as we stand at the back of the Defender’s interior design presentation, the day before the Frankfurt Motor Show.


“We’ve done the job. We think we’ve got it right,” Gerry says.


The Defender is the star of Europe’s biggest show of 2019.That is, despite talk everywhere about electric cars - headlined by a new Mercedes-Benz that also has the design language of the next S-Class.


Even Ferrari tried to ambush the event by releasing preview pictures of its F1 and 812 GTS Spiders.


Land Rover has gone all-out on the Defender event, mounting a massive pre-brief for the world’s media that cost at least $500,000.

The only thing missing is some sort of driving involvement, but that part of the plan failed in the final weeks thanks to a huge price-tag for a minimal return, in the carpark at the Frankfurt auto show grounds.
As it is, the multi-piece preview event starts with McGovern introducing his new baby, followed by intensive chat with impressive videos on everything from the car’s connectivity to its 900-millimetre creek-wading ability and a huge number of factory accessories, and partnerships that include a giant LEGO model of the Defender.

With everything rolling smoothly, Gerry glides into a back room at the interior design presentation for a quick chat. So, is this his magnum opus, the culmination of his career?

“Not bloody likely,” he smiles. “I haven’t finished yet. I’ve got a lot more to come. I’ll work until I drop.”

He’s so happy he even turns the talk to the cricket, and Britain’s comprehensive loss to Australia in the latest Ashes series.

“You blokes had your backs against the wall. You really had to find something,” Gerry tells me.

“And you Aussies are more British than the Brits. It’s that fighting spirit.”

So he’s talking cricket, but it’s easy to draw a comparison with the work that went into the Defender.


“I’ve got more than 90 per cent of what I wanted,” Gerry says.

“We looked at everything. If it didn’t work, or we didn’t need it, it came out.

“That grab handle on the passenger side of the dashboard? You could move the car with it.”

So, which is the Defender he would choose, bearing in mind there is a 90 and a 110 with seven colours, a dozen wheel choices, four engines, and on and on and on.

“My favourite? It’s a 90 in Pangea Green, with a white roof and plain silver wheels,” he says.

McGovern has been the subject of intense questioning from Australian journalists from the moment the new Defender was first announced.

He knows he is facing a small-but-focussed group of harsh markers. As McGovern says: "You guys never give up, do you? I can always expect probing questions from the Aussies.

He genuinely wants to know the verdict.

For me, it’s a winner.

I’ve even decided it should be nicknamed 
'The British Bulldog'.


The big question is how the Defender will be built. The basics are simple, from a monocoque body to dual-range permanent four-wheel drive, but there is a lot of technology and complication. The new Defender is light years apart from the solid, hard-working mudplugger it replaces.

That final question cannot be answered yet, and not even for the next year as production ramps up to top speed.

The last words on the subject are all his own work:

“This is a hero vehicle. It's a fucking hero vehicle. We don’t want to water it down.”

But McGovern is smiling, he is happy, and he is looking forward to another future visit to Australia to tout his new hero car.

Gerry, passport photo dated around 1850(?),
shortly before boarding a convict ship
bound for Australia?
“You know I love Australia.

If I’d have been born in the 1800s I would definitely have been sent to Australia.

No doubt about it. I'd have been on one of those ships.”

Friday, September 20, 2019

McLAREN GT - JUST FOR STARTERS


The humble Hyundai i30 and marvellous McLaren GT have something in common. Both are starter cars in their respective showrooms.

But things are a little different when you drill into just one detail. The starting price for the i30 is $20,990 drive-away, no-more-to-pay, and the GT opens at, ahem, $399,950. Before any fees or taxes.

So the pair are related, but only very, very distantly.

The people who are likely to buy them are literally worlds apart, as I’m reminded when the helicopter lifts off from Nice airport to shuttle me to the global press preview of the GT at a palatial private home that sometimes takes guests. This is one of those times, and the Squirrel drops us gently onto the grass at a glorious estate which is just down the bay from one of the palaces that Roman Abramovich sometimes calls home.

The welcome could not be warmer for the handful of Aussie journalists at the event, as the newly-installed global head of public relations at McLaren Cars is Piers Scott (right).

He is a talented and ambitious New Zealander who worked for a time as PR chief at BMW Australia, before moving on to BMW in Britain and now McLaren.

It’s obvious from the first handshake that Piers is unchanged, right down to his personal belief that shirts should always be casually open-necked and - if possible - opened to at least the third button . . .
But I’m getting off track.


The all-new GT looks lovely as it sits outside in the golden sunset, although perhaps not a match for the priceless modern art that has been lavished through the house by its real owners.

But, for now, McLaren is the host and this is highly enjoyable.

As we shift into work, the details of the new car come into focus. It’s the start of a new group of less-sporty cars from McLaren, although the basics of its carbon-fibre chassis and twin-turbocharged V8 engine are much the same.


We’re talking about 450 kiloWatts in 1530 kilograms, 0-100km/h in 3.2 seconds and a top speed of 326km/h.

Less sporty obviously depends on where you’re sitting, but remember that McLaren also builds the Senna.

In the case of the GT, the idea was to create a car which was less about track time records and more about long-distance journeys. For two.

There are no back seats. Not even a hide-y-hole for luggage or a briefcase behind the seats.

But the trunk space in the nose is generous and McLaren has re-jigged the back of the car to create a hatch-back space that is long and deep enough for golf clubs or skis or whatever.

It’s even comprehensively insulated against the heat from the engine below.

McLaren says the idea was to make the car more user friendly and more accessible.

Bottom line? It’s intended as a daily driver. Something that might seduce a buyer out of a Porsche or a Bentley.

It could eventually account for 20-25 per cent of sales as McLaren aims to grow to 5000 cars a year.

So, how does it drive? I thought you would never ask.

It’s quick at first, fast when you trigger the right switches on the right road in the right mindset, beautifully built and surprisingly relaxed.

Some of my colleagues say the GT is too soft. Not sharp enough on corner turn-in, not cracking hard enough on exits, not as rewarding as they want.
Me? I’m older and softer. Not in the way I’m marking the car, but in what I want and need and expect from a car called a GT.

I think the GT needs a bigger infotainment display screen, I still struggle with pedals which are not set-up for left-foot braking - in a world where almost everyone now drives an automatic - and I think it only just clears the bar for luggage space.

But the suspension is sublime, as I remember from the original McLaren MP4/12C, the car sits comfortably at any speed I choose, and it is a no-stress supercar.

Oh, and I must mention again that McLaren makes the best steering wheels in the world. The shape is perfect for me, steering weight is just-so, and not over-cluttered with buttons or knobs for people who think they're racing F1.

After wandering up to a lunch stop at one of the world’s most exclusive golf courses, where my old photographer mate Stan Papior from Autocar magazine is now plying is freelance trade by making me look good, I’m ready to trip the switches for a serious sprint.

The McLaren GT is as fast as I want to go on a public road, rocketing past slow-moving local traffic, hustling through sweepers and punching through hairpins.

Ok, so there is a touch of turbo lag, a little power understeer, and the exhaust is nowhere close to the aural brilliance of a Ferrari, but the GT does what I want, when I want, the way I want.

After a relaxing luxury lunch I slide into the passenger seat beside old-mate Toby Hagon and he chauffeurs me back to Nice airport as we share - on the iPad I’m holding - the excitement and enjoyment of the Italian Grand Prix. Ferrari wins, but we cheer for Leclerc anyway.

At the end of a long day, as we waft up to Nice's private jet terminal, I’m reminded that McLaren wanted to create a daily driver that is ideal for long-distance trips on roads that challenge and reward.

From where I’ve been sitting, McLaren has hit the bulls-eye.


Thursday, September 12, 2019

WOEFUL WARRIOR FALLS ON SAMURAI SWORD

Nissan’s Chief Executive Officer, Hiroto Saikawa will step down on September 16, after the Nissan Board requested his resignation over a scandal linked to overpayment of remuneration.

Initially it appeared that Saikawa had been overpaid by USD$300,000 however more details have emerged, revealing that the overpayment was around USD$1.2 million.


Saikawa is the man who engineered a clumsy coup d’etat, resulting in former Chairman of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, Carlos Ghosn, being arrested and jailed on similar charges of misreporting remuneration.

Ghosn’s case is not scheduled to be heard until later this year, but already Japanese media are speculating that under the circumstances, prosecutors may not proceed with the court case.

At the press conference late last night the Board said Nissan’s COO Yasuhiro Yamauchi will take over operational duties until the Board nominates a successor to Saikawa. There has been no reaction from Ghosn's Tokyo bunker.

John Crawford

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

THE TRULY 'NEW' LAND ROVER DEFENDER DEBUTS


Paul Gover reporting from Frankfurt:

There was quite a fuss today, the morning before the Defender goes public at the Frankfurt Motor Show, as Jaguar Land Rover mounted a $500,000 media preview event that ticked all the boxes short of a drive.

Everyone who presented, from design guru Professor Doctor Gerry McGovern down, was bullish and smiling.


But there was also a frisson of nervousness and, yes, fear.

No-one wants to be the person who "fucks up the Defender". Apologies for the language, but I heard exactly those words from the mouths of three of my long-term senior contacts inside the JLR executive team.

One is a board member.


They know they have done everything they can, but they also know that the Defender is now out of their hands.
The biggest concern is that the crew in Britain can build the car to the required quality standards.

The whole concept of quality runs contrary to the Defender’s history. It was rough and tough, not prissy or polished, but what the world wanted and needed after World War II was something that was fit for purpose.

Top Left: Original 1947 Prototype Top Right: 1948 Amsterdam Show Car with designer Maurice Wilks
Bottom Left: Land Rover 90 demonstrating off-road prowess  Bottom Right: 1988 Land Rover 110
The original Defender was made from aluminium because post-WW2 there was a shortage of steel, and plenty of alloy from scrapped aircraft, and no-one had even heard about a car radio, let alone a modern infotainment system.

My first impression is good.

Ironically, it came a week before Frankfurt when I spotted a Defender in full camouflage on a suburban street near Oxford in the UK.


It was far bigger and chunkier than I expected, but - even in a country where the roads are flooded with everything from the old Defender to the latest Range Rover Velar - immediately made an impact.

I decided, as I wafted past in my own Velar test car, that it should be know as the British Bulldog.

That is the stance, and the impact, and it’s about to be let off the leash …

Switching to Frankfurt, where most makers were still finishing their stands and there was a real fear of being cleaned-up by a rampaging forklift, journalists were run through the Land Rover program in groups of 60. There were four Aussies in our mob and, from the outset, McGovern took a swipe at the Aussie contingent, as he knows we're among the toughest critics, and have been chasing him for Defender chat for more than a decade.

“Well, here it is,” he told us.

The first impression is good. No, very good.


Both the Defender 110 and the shorter two-door 90 have good proportions, nice design, and plenty of little touches - from design to equipment and even accessories - to keep you thinking and exploring.

When I have more time, and a chance for reflection, I’ll  discuss marketing and pricing - the first hint is $70,000 for the 110 diesel - and how the roll-out is going to work.


But McGovern sets the groundwork as he previews his babies.

Designer Gerry McGovern

“Just remember one thing. The new Defender had to be designed for a world that’s changed beyond recognition. We’ve come from the jungle and now we’re operating in the urban jungle,” he says.

Engineering Chief Nick Rogers
When he is finished, group engineering director Nick Rogers steps onto the presentation platform to run through things like the first monocoque layout for the Defender, it’s low-range gears, aluminium suspension, and all the rest.

But it’s his chat that gets my attention.

“It’s a vehicle that visited all four corners of the earth. It was the first vehicle that many people saw. It saved people’s lives,” he says of the original Defender.

Then he gets into the new one.

“What was the mission? It was to create an authentic Land Rover for a modern world”.

“There was nothing else, other than function. And fun.”

“We had  a blank sheet of paper to write down what a new Defender needed to be in 2020. Capability is what it’s about.”

His bottom line? “It defies the laws of physics,” says Rogers.

The preview package wraps with a single picture from the set of the new James Bond movie, No Time To Die, which is under an even tighter embargo than the Land Rover one.

So the Defender wave is building and I cannot wait to see how the British Bulldog is accepted.

“There will be some dinosaurs who complain that it’s not body-on-frame, or whatever, but we know we’ve done the best Defender we can,” says one of the launch crew, and he is right.


GHOSN'S GHOST OF A CHANCE

There’s a glimmer of hope for Carlos Ghosn, that he may be spared the ignominy of court proceedings against him, for misreporting his income.

Charges which he vehemently denies and promises to vigorously defend.

No-one could blame Ghosn for enmity towards Nissan. Company officers had even convinced Japanese court officials to detain and question Ghosn's wife over their financial affairs.

This past week, his arch nemesis, former colleague, and the man who executed a clumsy coup d’etat to oust Ghosn from his job, has admitted that he himself was overpaid by almost half a million dollars.

Hiroto Saikawa has fallen out of favour with the Nissan Board, activist shareholders, the Japanese media, and Nissan employees after it was revealed that he too is involved in misreporting; that HE (Saikawa), in fact, signed off ALL Carlos Ghosn’s remuneration agreements; and it was he who requested the Nissan Board to buy a second house for Ghosn in Tokyo.


It has also been revealed that at the recent Nissan Board meeting in June, and election of Board members, Saikawa received only 78% of votes in his favour, with two large proxy shareholder groups voting against his appointment as CEO.

Since engineering the downfall of Ghosn, things at Nissan have gone from bad to worse, to very, very bad.

Under Saikawa's stewardship, Nissan’s stockpile of profits have simply shrunk - disappeared off the P&L.

Carlos Ghosn’s co-accused, Gregg Kelly, who also denies any charges of wrongdoing, said that Mr. Saikawa had increased his earnings, by improperly changing the execution date of stock-based compensation.

Nissan’s profits fell 47% in 2018; and in the period April-June 2019, Nissan’s profits plunged 94%. The reasons include falling appeal of passenger cars, which Saikawa insists Nissan will keep on producing and renewing; and a stagnant lineup of trucks and SUVs which will cost billions to replace, and he is also blamed for ignoring its American division, and desperate dealers, to revamp the Nissan lineup to focus on big trucks and SUVs.

Saikawa, for his part, blames all these problems on Ghosn.


However the fall in profits, falling sales, and the announcement that Nissan will cut almost 13,000 jobs worldwide have all occurred on Saikawa's watch, whilst Ghosn languished in a Tokyo jail.

All of this weakens Nissan’s role in the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, and strengthens Renault’s position, which could finally lead to a merger with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (which Saikawa has forcefully opposed).

In shooting down Renault’s initial merger talks with FCA, Saikawa said that Nissan was the most profitable member of the Alliance, and also the sales leader, and demanded that the Alliance agreement be completely re-written to give Nissan a stronger and more powerful voting status. However, in just six months of 2019 its value, its sales and its profits dropped off a cliff.

In the land where loss-of-face is a major cultural failing, Nissan looks set to become a laughing stock in the Japanese and global automotive scene, especially as long as Saikawa-san holds the top job.

John Crawford