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.
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
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.
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.
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!