What did we learn from the European and French Grand Prix?

Probably the first thing we learned was that the one lap at a time qualifying is really a little farcical. Whilst I do not begrudge Minardi its brief moment of glory, having Verstappen on provisional “pole” after Friday at Magny Cours, the vehicle did not belong at the sharp end, and it was only through the drying track conditions that got it there. Quite frankly, they may as well draw numbers out of the hat and save their tyres for Sunday.

Minardi’s Stoddart and Verstappen ฅ

We also learned that the BMW Williams is an excellent package and back to back 1-2’s cannot be ignored. Sure there are those who will point out that right now, Michelin tyres are obviously superior, but you cannot ignore the fact that the BMW engine can deliver the horses, and the engine is reliable. Schumi Junior also seems to have got over the hump, or whatever he had, and was decidedly dominant in France.

The European GP showed us that Coulthard has forgotten how to pass anybody. I can imagine him on the 2-way to Ron Dennis, “Ron, I canny pass Alonso. Should I come intae the pits again?” Unfortunately, that seems to be the only way anybody passes anyone else these days - unless your name is Montoya! And MS got given a lesson there too.

Jaguar has really pulled itself together this year. Both cars getting to the finish in France, with Webber, definitely the stronger of the pairing, getting a well deserved 6th. With Webber being another ‘rainmaster’ Jaguar could do well at the bound-to-be-wet at sometime Silverstone.

We also saw that Toyota is not doing as well as they (or their masters) would like. With the team manager saying that there is a 95% chance that the team will stay the same for next year, makes me think that Toyota has found that the sacking of both their 2002 drivers (Salo and McNish) was not such a smart idea. Whatever, Toyota does not like to see their cars blowing up in public. Andersson-San might even have to fall on his samurai?

Let us see what next week’s British GP brings us.

Rickshaws on the drip - FoMoCo introduces HP for its Chinese products

Ford Dealerships in China should be able to increase the numbers of Fords rolling out the doors, following an agreement struck with the Bank of China and the China Construction Bank to provide wholesale and retail auto financing to its China operation, Chang’an Ford Automobile Corp.

The agreement gives Ford the advantage of offering buyers in-house loans, still relatively rare in China. Chang’an has currently 20 dealerships with five more scheduled to open this month, according to Ken Habich, director of the dealer network.

Chang’an was established in April 2001, and is Ford’s first joint venture in the Chinese market. The company, which is based in Chongqing in south-western China, produces the Fiesta subcompact in 1.3 and 1.6 liter versions which sells for USD 10,700 to 15,300.

Vehicle financing was not allowed in China until 1998, but is now on the way up. Although only 30 percent of new vehicle buyers in China financed their purchase last year, Michael Dunne, president of Automotive Resources Asia, a commentator with ASEAN Autobiz magazine, believes that this will jump up to 40 percent this year.

With the Ford agreement, each bank will provide inventory financing to a number of Chang’an Ford dealerships and the bank that provides wholesale financing will h ave right of first refusal for retail loans coming from those dealerships. Interest rates will be set by the central bank, which currently range between 1 percent and 2 percent.

China, the world’s most populous nation, is still in its infancy as far as vehicle ownership is concerned, and while strong growth is being experienced (passenger cars grew 56 percent last year), the total is still only 1.2 million units, though expectations as high as 1.6 million exist in the marketplace.

Once again, under the terms of its agreement to join the World Trade Organization, China should have already allowed the manufacturer’s finance arms such as Ford Motor Credit Co. and General Motors Acceptance Corp. to begin operating, but the Central Bank is very cautious.

Autotrivia Quiz

Last week I asked which amateur British racing driver had the sex on his birth certificate changed from “boy” to “girl? It was Roberta Cowell who had one of the first sex-change operations in the UK. First in and best dressed was the US web-crawler himself, MacAlan Thompson, these days resident in Thailand. Well done!

And so to this week. Study the photograph. It is a Porsche. I want to know what model, and how do you know exactly what year it is? For the Automania FREE beer this week, be the first correct answer to email automania

Good luck!

Nissan’s 350Z. Is it as good as it looks?

There are some 350Z’s in the odd showroom around Thailand, but there’s not too many on the roads. At 4.35 million baht for the fully imported two-door coupe, one can see why. However, this is a vehicle that has attracted the public all over the world, and when our Down-under correspondent, John Weinthal and I saw it at the Bangkok International Motor Show a couple of years back in its concept phase, we were both mightily impressed. John has now had the opportunity to drive the production version. Here are the words from Weinthal:

Nissan 350z

“The most memorable Nissan ever sold in Australia was a Datsun - the wonderful 240Z, launched here in 1969. It had a six cylinder engine. It was rear-wheel-drive. It was a style-setter with a long bonnet and short tail. This was a time when Japan was known for almost anything but style. Above all, the 240Z was a terrific value, genuine sports car for enthusiast drivers.

“Later iterations of the Nissan Z cars tended to be overweight, overly complex and over-priced. I am overlooking the sensational GT-R series Nissan Coupes because they were barely sold here other than as specialty used imports.

“The latest Nissan sport is the 350Z. This car gets closer to the true Z spirit than any since the original 240Z - or 24 ounce as many called it. The 350Z looks stunning. It goes frantically. It has the dynamics of a car designed for the track. It is more than adequately equipped with practical and user-friendly goodies. Above all, at AUD 60,000, it represents real value.

“There are two versions of this 202 kW stunner. The Touring model costs AUD 60,000 plus the inevitable taxes and dealer thefts. A harder-hitting Track model is six grand heavier at AUD 66,000. They share a sweet revving and zestful 202 kW 3.5 litre V6 engine which is mounted well back for optimum weight distribution and handling balance. Both have an excellent, light to use, six-speed manual gearbox. Optional auto costs AUD 2800, thankfully for the Touring model only.

“The Nissan challenges the audacious Audi TT as an instant styling classic. Like the Audi, the Z works from every angle, inside and out - but it also has the stance and stats of a true performance machine. The Nissan is in a totally different power league while costing around AUD 15,000 less than the 132 kW, front-wheel-drive version of the lesser of the two Audis.

“The 350Z is an absolute two-seater. There is no pretence of space for even the smallest child and our test car was the Track model. This has some additional aerodynamic plastic pieces and, for those who want to really thrash their cars at a race circuit, there are more expensive wheels and much larger 4-piston calliper Brembo brakes. The Touring runs on 17 inch seven-spoke alloys with 50 profile tyres, but the Track has even wider 45 tyres on six-spoke 18 inch rims.

“This car was as good to drive - as secure feeling and thrill-delivering - as it looks. What more could one ask? In the case of the Track, at least, one could do with rather less information - both aural and physical - of every road surface variation.

“The ride is distinctly firm until you are travelling at or above legal limits. On a long run there is constant tyre roar which would become tiring for all but the most ardent enthusiast after more than a few hours. The engine might sound great, but one never actually hears it over the road rumble!

“The 350Z Touring should be less harsh and may even transmit less noise to the cabin simply because of its slightly higher profile, narrower tyres.

“The Z Track is less harsh than a Subaru WRX STi, but I would still recommend you drive both Zeds before forking out an extra $6000 for the Track which is probably less rewarding for 99% of your driving.

Nissan 350 z

“Nissan has a sure winner here. The 350Z has classic style. It represents excellent value and it is genuinely everyday friendly. Best of all it is also capable way beyond the capacities of most of us.

“However, as ever, there is a however! For even less money Mazda has just launched its new RX8 with four seats, quirky yet still sporty looks and unique four door arrangement. The rotary engined Mazda is marginally less powerful and probably requires more work to attain top performance and the Nissan scoops it in the styling stakes for sure. I hope to drive it later in the year.

“Another four-seater power performer will be Alfa Romeo’s 190kW 147GTA, again for around AUD 60,000. I still enthuse at the mere memory of the Alfa 156GTA with the same mechanical and power package - this lighter smaller brother should be a sensation.

“If The Mazda and Alfa can match the Nissan’s performance, build quality and sheer driving satisfaction then we are indeed in a new Great Age of Motoring for Joy.”

(Thank you, John, and as ever I remain envious of your snaffling a drive in some of the world’s more memorable motor cars. Dr. Iain.)