New F1 driver visits Pattaya

The F1 premier website ran a straw poll to gage readers’ attitude towards the granting of a full-time drive in the Minardi team for young Hungarian driver Zsolt Baumgartner. 2 percent thought it was a good choice, 8 percent felt he wouldn’t last one season, 10 percent felt that he should have been offered a position as a tester, but not as a racer, 18 percent said it was a joke and 59 percent said to give the guy a chance.

After spending an hour with the 23-year-old, while he was on his (10th) annual holidays with his parents at the prestigious Royal Cliff Beach Resort in Thailand, I feel I am better equipped to evaluate and vote in the pitpass poll.

Zsolt (pronounced Djolt, by the way) comes from a well-off family in Hungary. His father has been the dealer principal for Renault in Budapest for many years and now controls six Renault dealerships, perhaps giving a little inkling as to why Zsolt chose Formula Renault as one of his stepping stones towards F1.

My personal belief is that to be a real racer you have to be passionate about cars and Zsolt’s first mechanical memories revolve around a small motorbike he got when he was four years old. “The fumes from the petrol were touching me from that time,” said Zsolt. “Now I like anything with a motor, I even spend much time on the jet ski’s in the sea off Pattaya (on his holidays).”

It is an accepted part of the motor racing apprenticeship process these days that the tyro begins in go-karts, and Zsolt has been no exception, starting off aged 10. “It was just a hobby then. I have tried many sports, football, judo and tennis.”

The hobby gave way to something akin to passion and he concentrated on karting, doing well in Hungary (though detractors might say that he had little opposition in the small country) but then in competing in greater Europe itself, graduating to his first real race car - a Formula Renault in 1997.

However, Zsolt does not come across as a spoiled rich kid given expensive toys to fill in his days and keep him from getting under his father’s feet. He attends university, studying technical management and design draughting, but considers that his main profession is race car driving, competing at an international level for six years. In that time he has raced in F Renault, F Renault 2000, F3 and F3000, competing against others who have raced in F1 as Pizzonia and another newcomer, Bruni (his team-mate at Minardi for 2004). During last year he was also a test driver for Jordan and raced in Hungary and Monza, standing in for the injured Firman.

To make your race debut, it would be preferable to have everything set up beforehand, and prepare yourself mentally for the event. Zsolt did not get that luxury. Ralph Firman had crashed and was not fit to race. With two hours notice, Zsolt was strapped in a car that was set up for Firman. “It was difficult to get into any rhythm because the car was not set up for me,” explained Zsolt, “But I think I handled it quite well.” History records that he did indeed keep his nose clean, both in Hungary and at Monza.

In the minds of many F1 enthusiasts there are the fairly recent memories of other drivers who have appeared without a significant, dominant, winning history in the lower formulae. Minardi ‘pay drivers’ being amongst them. I broached the subject with Zsolt Baumgartner and he was quite frank with his replies. “Pay drivers? It’s not really just about money, but the guy with the budget will get the drive. It has been this way for many years and you have to have a sponsor behind you in F3, F Renault 2000 and F3000 all the way.”

Drivers with cash behind them become good catches for the cash-strapped teams, and Zsolt with a reputed USD 4 mill behind him this year (Hungarian government and Tourism Authority, oil companies, banks and others) says that he was approached by Eddie Jordan. “Eddie made an offer - but was asking too much money, then he had problems with other sponsors - Benson and Hedges wanted an English driver - but I think it will go to Verstappen as he has 15 million.” Money talks, talent walks?

We also explored the lack of ultimate results he has had in, say, F3000. “In F3000 you have to fight the car. F1 is more precise and suits my style which is smoother and more flowing. Braking in F1 is massive. Doing 300 kays and braking at 50 metres at Monza, for example. There are drivers who can do this, and some who can’t. F3000 drivers are not necessarily quick enough in F1.” He continued, “F1 is about a lot of luck and a good car. You (also) need very good mental preparation. It is just as important as all the other things. I select where I take the risks, and it’s not on the first lap. In 72 laps, much can happen.”

He looks upon this coming year with Minardi as part of the progression he wants for himself. “I have to work up through the smaller teams, like any other driver,” and “want to catch Jordan and score a couple of points,” as the immediate aim.

After an hour with Zsolt Baumgartner I came away with a different opinion than I had before meeting him personally. I was impressed by his attitude and intellect, both important factors in making it to the top (in any sport).

Whether he makes it this year in F1 will depend, not upon his sponsorship package, but whether he does have the ability in this type of vehicle. He has the faith in himself, and I hope it is not misdirected. Zsolt Baumgartner is a nice chap and a wonderful ambassador for his home country.

Melbourne on March 7 will soon show what all the new drivers are capable of. Will Zsolt Baumgartner make it? I actually think he might! When the flag drops, the bullsh*it stops!

The ‘real’ Mustang returns

The archetypal ‘pony car’ has returned to Ford’s corral, with the new Mustang which debuted at the Detroit Motor Show. The Iaccoca design of the mid 1960’s reached its zenith, in my book, as the Mustang used in the film Bullitt, driven by Steve McQueen. That was a muscle car! However, the people who can remember the good ole days at FoMoCo have managed to triumph and the Mustang returns.

I briefly mentioned this car last week, but since then I have managed to get some more details. The 2005 Mustang is the star of Ford’s ‘year of the car’ product line-up and is the first all-new Mustang since 1979.

It certainly is ‘retro’ with the long bonnet, side scoops, round headlights, aggressive nose and the galloping horse insignia. Forget prancing horses, this is good old American iron that gallops.

“We weren’t just redesigning a car, we were adding another chapter to an epic,” said J Mays, Ford group vice president, design. “The new Mustang’s modern design speaks to its technical advancement - without losing the classic Mustang bad-boy image.”

Like its predecessor, the new Mustang is fairly ordinary as far as the chassis/powertrain design is concerned with the front engine (V6 or V8) and rear wheel drive via a live rear axle. Front suspension is McPherson strut. Ford says it stuck with the solid rear axle because “it is robust, maintains constant track, toe-in and camber relative to the road surface, and it keeps bodyroll well under control.” Oh yeah? It didn’t on the original, and won’t on this one either, unless they uprate the springs and have one inch thick sway bars, but if nothing else it will give lots of work for the after-market suspension tuners!

The engines are a choice of the 4 litre single overhead camshaft V6, delivers 151kW and 319Nm of torque. But the engine that should be in this car is the 4.6 litre V8 GT with its twin overhead camshafts and a three-valve head, producing 224kW and a staggering 427Nm of torque. Both engines mate to different Tremec five-speed manual gearboxes, with a five-speed auto optional. There is also electronic throttle control and faster engine management controls to assist in the delivery of power and torque.

The new Mustang has disc brakes all round, a decided improvement on the original cars, with Ford claiming the biggest rotors and stiffest callipers ever fitted to a Mustang. Both ABS and switchable traction control are available too.

Standard equipment includes one-touch up/down power windows, power mirrors, keyless entry and power locks, a heated rear window, variable intermittent wipers and dual-stage airbags for driver and passenger. Audio systems range from the standard CD player on base models to a 1000-watt Shaker Audiophile system.

Interior-wise, there are a variety of choices available, including a claimed “industry-first” colour-configurable instrument panel so drivers can mix and match lighting at the touch of a button to create more than 125 different colour backgrounds “to suit their personality, mood, outfit or whim” according to the blurb. I remain positively underwhelmed!

However, since I can’t find an ‘old’ Mustang here, perhaps someone will bring in a new one for me to sample after their release in 2005. Don’t forget me!

Here’s the ideal car for island holidays

Called the Splash, the Swiss Rinspeed Company is supposed to be releasing this little gem this year and claims that the ‘device’ can be driven, swims, and flies. The world release will be at the Geneva Motor Show, along with Rinspeed’s usual efforts in supertuning Porsches.

According to Rinspeed’s media release, the Splash can actually “drive, swim and fly across the water”. The unique aerial feature is made possible by a “sophisticated and foldable high-tech wing system” powered by on-board hydraulics and electronics.

The two-seater Splash is powered by a light weight two cylinder 750cc engine which runs on compressed natural gas and has been turbocharged to produce around 100kW. Top speed claimed is 200 kays on the road, 50 kays on the water and 80 kays in the skies!

Autotrivia Quiz

Last week I asked a Scottish related question. Two manufacturers used tartan fabric on the exterior of their car bodies. I asked what were they, and the clues were that one was in 1922 and the other in 1930. They were Voisin in 1922 and Willys-Knight on their ‘Plaidside’ roadster of 1930.

So to this week. Since we featured the Ford Mustang, let’s have a Mustang question. What was the Mustang model driven by Steve McQueen in Bullitt? This should be very easy!

For the Automania FREE beer this week, be the first correct answer to email automania

Good luck!