Friday, March 27, 2009

F1 Rules

I have to admit that I've been a somewhat reluctant fan of Formula 1 the last years. The cars couldn't pass each other and the politics were ruining the race. Still, there have always been a few people that love the sport in the purest possible way and its always great to see them do well. For me, that list includes Michael Schumacher and Ross Brawn in their days at Ferrari. They seemed to bring out the best in people, combine it with the brightest ideas and have it come out in a joy of winning that was contagious.

This year we have new rules which should make racing and passing better. More than that, Ross Brawn has come out of the Honda mess with his own F1 team and is very competitive right out of the box. Add to that another enthusiastic driver, Rubens Barrichello, and we have another team that celebrates the best in F1.

Since the new rules force some interesting changes in the cars, I thought I would copy some excerpts from an excellent article in Racecar Engineering that addresses some of the challenges in the new season. Just in time for the first race.

Excerpted from "The Countdown is Over" by Sam Collins.

"These front wings have turned out to be more powerful than we thought they would be," reveals Renault's Bob Bell. "When we put the first designs into the wind tunnel we thought we would not have enough front wing power, but now it turns out that we have more than we can deal with! So the drive is to push the weight as far forward as possible."

That push to adjust the weight distribution forward is hindered by the introduction of weighty KERS hardware in the centre of the cars. "With KERS you lose the ability to put the ballast where you want it," explains Bell. "So what we have had to do is pretty much try to see where we want it to be and tune the wheelbase and the mass distribution of the car in a static environment to get it pretty close, and that's been the major challenge."

Pascal Vasselon of Toyota elaborates on the same point. "It's no secret that if you take a Formula 1 car without ballast the weight distribution is too much towards the rear. So what you do is take the remaining weight in the form of ballast and move it forward. But by using KERS you lose a lot of that forward ballast in favour of the system, so the weight distribution is further forward than you would like."

So it's clear that the increased rear weight bias and the excess front-end downforce are two of the factors that will change the handling of the cars significantly this coming year, but the third is perhaps the most significant of all - the tyres.

"The effect is obvious," says Vasselon, "because when we went from slick to grooves it created massive understeer, so going to slicks it is obvious that it will induce oversteer." The new tyres themselves creating oversteer is one thing but, with the rear weight bias created by KERS and the forward aero bias, it makes at worse for some very sideways motoring and, at best, for a hard time for the rear rubber.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A John Chamberlin Edition

John has already done a good job of posting this video through email, so if you are on his list, you will have undoubtedly already watched it. For those of you who may have missed it, its worth a look. One of the best combinations of computers and old fashioned machines that I've seen.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Rex Roadster

A couple little stories about the Rex Roadster. We brought the Rex into California in my Subaru days with the idea of living with this Japan only model and thinking about how or if we could use this line of cars here in the US. I was lucky enough to get to drive a Rex just like this white one for about a year and a half. The engine was a 550 cc twin with a supercharger and an ECVT (continuously variable) transmission. The car was about as long as most cars are wide and it was a hoot to drive.

Because of the electric clutch and the ECVT, it didn't launch very hard. The clutch was made up of a big electromagnet and a bunch of powered metal between the clutch plate and flywheel. When the magnet was turned on, the powdered metal would turn from powder to semi-solid and connect the engine to the trans. Because it didn't shift, I would make up any distance lost on launch when the car next to me had to shift. Of course, most people in Hondas and Toyotas didn't even know I was drag racing with them because my flat out drag race was pretty much normal driving for regular people.

There is an intercooler under that hood scoop and the car is so light and agile that it was great to toss around. The fastest I ever drove it was an indicated 160 kph which is almost 100 mph, but I'm not sure I believed that speedo.

As you can see, there is not much front overhang on this thing. Its clearly not designed for US crash standards. One time, I was stopped at a stop light and a guy on a motorcycle came up next to me and gave the car the once over. Since my window was down, he lifted his visor and said. "Man you are going to die!"

The big fabric folding top was fantastic for So Cal, and amazingly, I fit quite comfortably. As a right hand drive car, it was very useful on freeways. After all, most people crowd the left side of the lane trying to see forward. I could just slip over to the right side and see all the way up the lane. Of course, passing other cars on a winding two lane road was more of a challenge from the right side of the car.

One of the funniest incidents was when I drove up to a valet parking with two people in the car. Of course, the car is unusual enough that the valet is trying to look cool, but also trying to figure out what kind of car this is. He walks up to the left side of the car, gets in, then realizes that the steering wheel is on the other side. Meanwhile, me and my date are peaking out from the front of the restaurant and laughing quietly.

One of the sad things in this business is that you sometimes have to destroy a car that you've grown fond of. Prototypes and foreign market cars imported on bond have to be destroyed and the Rex was one of these. When the time came, I was happy to be able to convert it into the Rex Roadster. A far better fate for an old friend than the crusher.

So it does take a little imagination to start with the little white Rex and end up with this Rex Roadster. The wheelbase and track of the two cars are the same. Even the height of the door is pretty close to the same. The car was fully drivable, converted to left hand drive, and with all functional elements except wipers.

Of course, with a convertible, the shape of the windshield is critical to having a comfortable cockpit at speed, so Ron Will (below) and I made up a poster board and foam core mockup of the windshield and attached it to the roof of a pickup truck. Then one of us rode standing up behind the windshield while the other drove the truck down the road. You can learn a lot about basic aero from very simple tools.

This last is just gratuitous fun thrown in because its about Rex.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Hanging Around with Car Designers

I always love it when Doug posts a comment. He always makes such interesting comments. For example, "I like to think I could have designed the Cobra Daytona Coupe too, except I couldn't imagine such a vehicle until I saw it. I couldn't draw either."

That got me to thinking about the time I've spent hanging around with car designers. Actually, some of them are genuine car designers, some are twinkie ass stylists, and a few have been felt tip fairies. You get all levels in any enterprise.

Anyway, I've always wondered if I knew any more about design from spending time with talented and artistic car designers. It is sort of the question of nature or nurture. I suspect the answer is that I've learned a few things over the years and am better off understanding how a designer addresses a car design, but I'm sure God given talent needs to be in there somewhere and, unless I design something on my own, we will never know.

Even though these are low quality photos, I thought I'd share a few of the projects I was a part of. Above is the SRD1, a Subaru show car for the Tokyo Motor Show in the early 90's. Since Subaru was famous for wagons, we did an executive limousine in the form of a wagon. I was able to be involved with the packaging, designed the suspension, and figured out how to make the wiring work. Probably the most interesting thing was the filming of the video of the car for the screens at the auto show. That whole Hollywood process is amazing. In fact, I'll try to figure out how to convert that video to the computer. That would be a laugh.

The Rex Roadster above was primarily my own project, although the design was from an independent designer we hired for the occasion. This thing is tiny. The engine is a 550 cc twin with a supercharger. It started life as a Japan market commuter car. We cut the top off, stiffened the chassis, and made the body you see here. The process of cutting off the top and stiffening the chassis happened at the shops of Richard Straman who is the guy who cut the tops off of Ferrari Daytona's to convert them to convertibles. This little car was pretty outclassed in a shop full of vintage Ferrari restorations, beautiful cars from 1930's France, and other high end exotica.

It was certainly interesting to talk to the artists in the shop about how they had to fabricate each part of an old Ferrari since no two cars were alike. Take the fender from one, try to mount it on another of the same model and year, and you would just laugh at how badly it fit.

The idea of the Rex Roadster was to survey customers with a running car they could drive and understand if Americans would accept a sporty car that was this small. Since you don't see any Subaru's like this running around, you can guess the answer.

The little white van was intended to be a US Postal delivery van, electric powered naturally. The whole thing was a joint venture project with other companies to find useful electric car applications. Since the Post Office only needs about 25 miles range, they were a great potential customer for the batteries that were available at the time. We called it the Toon Town van because of it's goofy cartoon looks. But it worked great and I can only wish that the big bosses would have approved going forward.
I had absolutely nothing to do with this one. It's just that I think the OSCA is such a pretty car and Bob took this lovely picture, so I'll just include it so that you don't think I only post old and awful scanned pictures. Can you believe the paint on this thing?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Unemployable Overachievers

For those of you who don't know him, here are a few pictures of my friend, Dave Stollery. Naturally, I don't have very many pictures of Dave at all, but I managed to crop him out of a few AREX pictures. I thought I would take this opportunity to tell you about Dave and the Unemployable Overachievers Club.

A long time ago, Dave was working for a major automotive manufacturer and he had what I will call a very bad day. As a result, he decided that he wanted to control his own destiny and never work for a big company again. Since then, he has worked his butt off, done some very creative design work (both in automotive and in non-automotive industrial design), and succeeded in being his own boss for more than 25 years.

Back in the 90's, when we were busy showing AREX around at various car shows, Dave got together with some friends and acquaintances at dinner in Vegas and it turned out that all of them had significant accomplishments but felt they couldn't hold a regular company job.

The list of people at this dinner is probably wrong, since its just from my poor memory, but even if this is the wrong list, it was a very interesting group. From my memory the attendees included Peter Brock of Cobra Daytona Coupe, Bruce Meyers of Myers Manx, Robert Cumberford of Automotive magazine, Gale Banks of Banks Turbos, Jaz Rarewala (first importer of Lamborgini), and, possibly, Tim Considine, sometime actor and auto writer. Together, they formed the Unemployable Overachievers Club.

They spent the evening talking about how they found it impossible to bend their will to the company line when they tried to work for big companies and many stories about how they left various companies. At least, I've been told that is what they talked about. You see, as a corporate lackey with clearly flexible morality that had allowed me to stay employed at a large company, I was not welcome in this august group.

I was reminded all this in a recent phone call with Dave. These days, Dave is at an age when most people would have retired, but he still works 7 days a week, says he is physically stronger than in his youth, and doesn't show any signs of slowing down. He told me that he had been thinking about that bad day at work, all those years ago. At the time, it seemed terrible, but he now thinks it was the luckiest day in his life. After all, if he hadn't changed directions then, he would have missed out on a lifetime full of interesting people, intense challenges, and proud accomplishments. He talked about his contemporaries who have recently retired from big companies and how they couldn't do what he has done. It takes years to build a reputation and build a client base for a consultancy. You can't just start at 65.

Some of us have had career challenges, especially in the last year. More of us are likely to face bad times over the next few years. I think Dave's story is good lesson. Even if things don't turn out like we thought they would, like we wanted them to, you just have to keep trying and stay open to new experiences. In the end, one definition of your life is the sum of your experiences, not your plans.