Austrian GP this weekend

With the leader board of the Eff Wun championship now very much closer, this should be an interesting event. With McLaren having blotted its copybook in Spain, the title aspirations of Kimi Raikkonen will depend upon a good showing in Austria.

The race should be televised here at 7 p.m. local time, but as always, check your own TV guide! The new Ferrari should be good at this circuit, but do not discount Renault, which has produced a vehicle with an amazing turn of speed, and reliability.

What did we learn from Spain?

Well first off, Kimi Raikkonen looks at his instruments too much at the start, crashing into Pizzonia’s Jaguar, when Wilson managed to see the stalled car and avoid it successfully. Sorry, but the world’s most highly paid parking jocks should know by now that stalled cars are always a risk, and the trick to avoidance is always to move to the centre of the track on take-off. Some drivers actually angle their cars on the grid before the start.

Alonso is being hailed as the new "king", but wait a while yet before putting your money on him to beat the current conqueror of all, Michael Schumacher. The young guy did well, and his day is coming, but it’s not tomorrow.

Ralph Firman’s Jordan had about as much traction as a dog on linoleum. Loved his car control catching the sliding Jordan and he has gone up in my estimation, just as the Jordan’s engineering team has gone down!

The observant during qualifying would have noted that the two Ferraris were over 10 kph quicker down the straight than anything else. This either means the new engine is a rocket ship, or the Ferrari’s were running very low downforce wings. However, 10 kays is far too much for the others to give away.

Finally, we learned that too many of the drivers have not learned my First Rule of Motor Sport - To finish first, first you have to finish. They have also not learned my Second Rule of Motor Sport - You do not win the race at the first corner - you only lose the race at the first corner.

Autotrivia Quiz

Last week I mentioned a Czarist racing driver called Ivanowski - and I asked what important cup did Ivanowski win, driving an Alfa Romeo? The correct answer was the Georges Boillot Cup for being first at Boulogne in 1928.

So to this week. The Ferrari Daytona (AKA 365GTB/4) developed 350 bhp at 7,500 rpm. What was the red-line on the tachometer? (This is an attempt to stymie all my ‘google’ friends!)

For the Automania FREE beer this week, be the first correct answer to email [email protected]

Good luck!

Who is Mark Webber?

One of the new names in the Eff Wun world series is Australian Mark Webber. Driving for Jaguar this year, he has opened many eyes, and given Jaguar Racing their highest grid position ever (3rd) and Jaguar’s only racing points this season.

Mark Webber

This has been no dream run to the top, having to do it the hard way - he had no huge financial backing, and in fact he has had to occasionally rely on the financial generosity of other Australian sporting heroes like footballer David Campese to continue chasing his dream.

Like so many race drivers, Webber began his racing career in karts, and became the New South Wales Sate karting champion in 1992. He made his Formula Ford debut in Australia in 1994, where I saw his brilliance in the rain at Bathurst, and earmarked him then as a future champion. Going overseas, he won the Formula Ford Festival in the UK in 1996.

Webber graduated to F3 with Alan Docking Racing for the 1997 season, and went on to claim five podiums as well as a Brands Hatch victory. In 1998 he was signed as an official Mercedes works junior driver for 1998, and went on to compete in the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1999, being one of the loop-the-loop drivers when the Mercedes Le Mans vehicles were found to be in trouble aerodynamically at high speed.

Webber moved up to F3000 in 2000 and was third in the F3000 championship driving for Eurobet Arrows, and went on to complete a test for Benetton who signed him up as official test driver for 2001. He remained in F3000 for 2001, as well as his duties for Benetton.

In 2002 the under-financed Webber got his first F1 race seat with Minardi, alongside the over-financed Alex Yoong. On March 3rd of that year, Webber became an instant Australian folk hero finishing 5th in his debut F1 in Melbourne Australia. He then spent the rest of the year carrying the Minardi around, and showing his talents in the underpowered car, by out-qualifying his team mate, sometimes by several seconds.

His talents were recognised by former champion Niki Lauda who signed him up alongside the highly reputed Brazilian hot-shot Antonio Pizzonia to spearhead Jaguar’s challenge in 2003. In this role, Webber has also excelled, again out-qualifying his team mate, and has undoubtedly taken on the position as Jaguar’s number 1 driver.

All of Australia is looking for one race team to give Mark Webber the winning car he deserves.

SkyLab - A Thai automaker to watch?

The Eastern Seaboard Industrial Estate has a sign proclaiming it to be "The Detroit of the East". With GM and Ford/Mazda on board, plus a host of parts suppliers, they are probably quite justified. Thailand is the auto hub of ASEAN is the proud boast. But while basking in that pride, let us not forget the Thai automakers, some of whom you may never have heard of, like Od Srikuangow who is the boss of Skylab.

Od Srikuangow

The SkyLab factory is based in Koh Si Chang, that small island 40 minutes by ferry boat from the Eastern Seaboard’s Sriracha port. It is also an island that boasts around 100 of the SkyLab style of vehicles, though SkyLab is the major producer of the latest technology vehicles.

I have to admit that I have always been a great admirer of practical engineering, and the SkyLab embodies all of that. It is a vehicle that has evolved. With the SkyLab engineering and technology being driven by many factors, including the local topography, it is a very good example of how Thailand seized upon concept of the internal combustion engine, very early in its history, as opposed the neighbouring countries. That concept in turn has been producing people like Od Srikuangow, a very practical engineer.

The Bangkok tuk-tuk was a utilitarian three wheeled vehicle for the nation’s capital till a few years ago, and then they began to filter out into the provinces. You don’t have to look far to see (and hear) many of them buzzing around the streets. The 400 cc Daihatsu twin cylinder engine delivering enough power to ferry three people and groceries, with its exhaust note giving it the eponymous name of tuk-tuk. Of course, eventually someone ‘exported’ one to Koh Si Chang about 10 years ago, and that is where the SkyLab saga began.

Koh Si Chang is not flat, being an old volcanic plug, and the small engined 3 wheeled tuk-tuk was no match for the gradients - something larger was needed. The ubiquitous Corolla engine of 1200 cc delivered power that was more than adequate, but the normal 3 wheeler gearbox was not up to the new grunt, so why not use the Toyota gearbox too? Unfortunately this new power train did not fit within the confines of the chassis and it was obvious a major re-think was required.

The end result was the archetypal Koh Si Chang 3 wheeler ("samlor"). This was longer and wider than the tuk-tuks, yet retained the motorcycle style front forks and handlebars, but incorporated a car engine and gearbox and differential. Brakes and clutch were foot actuated, while the accelerator was still a hand throttle mounted on the handle bars.

Using the old adage of ‘Form follows Function’ the design of the handlebars becomes apparent. Koh Si Chang has very tight and tortuous roads with sharp bends. With a flat bar, the rider would not have long enough arms to hang on to the grips while turning 300 degree corners, but with the ‘ape hanger’ style, the grips are kept closer to the rider/driver.

So now we come to SkyLab. Od’s factory adjoins his house, and like many SME’s (very small!) in Thailand, the footpath is looked upon as an extension of the workshop space. Being a major producer of the local vehicular transport obviously helps acceptance of this. The main manufacturing equipment includes a compressor and an electric welder, kept inside, while the manual pipe bender lives outside in the elements.

Skylabs lined up on the wharf.

The SkyLab design is a simple ladder frame built from 2 inch seamless thick-walled tube, with 1 inch elsewhere. The ladder arms are brought together at the front and angled up to become the headstock for the motorcycle forks, which are kept at a more vertical angle to allow for the extremely sharp turns. At the rear, the "cabin" is supported on 1 inch angle, built in box formation up from the tubular ladder arms.

The engine is mounted using standard rubber mounts and the gearbox is supported from beneath by a cross-member. The auto derived live axle is suspended on two leaf springs using U-bolts in standard pattern and the normal hydraulic brakes are retained.

Since the wheel does not need to be reinvented, a standard motorcycle petrol tank is employed, though the affixed decals proclaiming Honda, Yamaha or Kawasaki do not mean that the front forks came from the same source. Owners often replace these decals with others of equally less significance, such as "BMW", another locally represented manufacturer which has absolutely no part in a SkyLab!

The basic design is such that it can easily be converted and there are pick-up versions and a new "Songtaew" (seats facing each other) as well as the standard forward and rearward facing seats model, just like the major manufacturers’ common platform technology allows several body styles to be built upon it. The top of the line model retails between 90-100,000 baht, depending on the level of extras.

Toyota are talking 30,000 cars a year for the new Soluna Vios, but Od’s production is only around five SkyLabs a year, with the detailed bodywork taking most of that time as the basic frame is welded together in three days. Being an island, salt water corrosion is a problem and the deluxe SkyLabs have stainless steel bodies, again making production times longer.

While it is easy to look at the work done by a basic ‘backyard’ manufacturer and smile, it should be remembered that Henry Ford I, Karl Benz and even Henry Durant all initially manufactured vehicles by using practical engineering to overcome the problems of the day. They too produced vehicles that were primitive, but they did what was asked of the vehicles - ferried people and goods around the countryside. The world needs the Od Srikuangows, even today. People who can conceptualise an idea and then convert it to reality. For me, Od’s ‘factory’ was as exciting as any other assembly line, but even more so, as you could see first hand the workings of the human mind as it fashions a device to be used for a specific purpose. If ferrying people and goods around Koh Si Chang is your needs, the vehicle you need is a SkyLab!