Spanish GP this weeked

Despite rumours that the Grand Prix teams might boycott the Spanish GP because of the European Arrest Warrant (basically doing away with the writ of Habeas Corpus), the GP will be on this Sunday at the Barcelona venue.

Spain has a long history in GP racing, and Jerez was used for many years. However, the Jerez circuit was blighted by being too far from centres of population to attract crowds, so the Catalunya circuit (aka Montmelo) was built just 12 miles from Barcelona. It was actually the fourth circuit in, or near, Barcelona, which has some claim to being Spain’s capital of motor racing.

The Circuit Catalunya was built on land owned by the Real Automobil Club de Catalunya, and they took over the Spanish GP. Opened in 1991, the 2.95 mile circuit was quick and had both a wide range of corners and excellent facilities and viewing points. A temporary chicane was built at ‘Nissan’ (a very shallow curve) in 1994, but for 1995, ‘Nissan’ was straightened, reducing the length of a lap to 2.937 miles.

The main interest this weekend will be to see if BAR can continue their amazing form. Jenson Button has now been on the podium for a third in Malaysia and a second in San Marino, as well as his pole position after Qualifying at San Marino. Is this the time Button makes it to the top step? While Takumo Sato managed to explode his Honda engine in the BAR, the team say that this was prompted by a gearbox fault. This sounds to me like the ‘official’ reason for retirement being noted as “electrical problems” when the conrod knocked the top off the distributor cap!

Williams continues to be an unhappy team, though some promising testing was done at Silverstone between San Marino two weeks ago and this weekend. Ralf Schumacher is still in trouble as he keeps on seeing dollar signs, instead of other drivers, and ended up being punted off the road (yet again) this time by Alonso, while Montoya is turning into a bit of a cry-baby when Michael Schumacher isn’t overcome with fright when Juan Pablo tries a bit of muscling on the first lap. It was also interesting that Montoya didn’t mind putting Ralfie on the grass, but hated being put there by Ralfie’s big brother!

The race should begin at 7 p.m. Thai time, but check your TV guides.

Lolling around in a Lexus LS 430

Toyota has been very successful at introducing a new brand to the marketplace - that of Lexus. I was one of those who thought it was just a bit of marketing smoke and mirrors, and that the cars were really just tarted up Toyota’s - but I was wrong. Toyota spawned a new brand and has kept it as an exclusive marque. It now has a very strong band of faithful followers, and our Down-under correspondent John Weinthal is one of those. Here is John’s take on the new Lexus LS 430.

Lexus LS 430

“The Lexus LS430 is a large and supremely luxurious sedan. It can be yours for around AUD 175,000, plus the usual on roads and (shudder) insurance. (In Thailand it will take 7.645 million baht out of your bank account - Dr. Iain.) It is also the only car I can think of which has not a single option - with this Lexus you get the works; even a 400 page handbook!

“This is in great contrast with other cars costing upwards from AUD 180,000 like top drawer Jaguars, BMWs and Mercedes where injudicious ticking of the options boxes can boost the sticker cost by up to 25 per cent.

“The comprehensive package comprises a large four door sedan with a 207 kW 4.3 litre quad cam V8. It drives the rear wheels through a six-speed automatic which offers effective manual over-ride when called for. The LS430’s imposing looks are enhanced by low profile tyres on five spoke 18 inch alloy rims.

“This is a fully loaded car; it has every electronic gadget apart from TV and DVD it seems. There are automatic wipers and headlamps of course, but still no rear window wiper. The brilliant xenon headlamps swivel for better lighting through corners. The satellite navigation is more user friendly than most.

“Radar cruise control can ensure you do not get too close to the car in front by maintaining your chosen distance as you approach a slower car. It will then accelerate this 1800 kg limo back to your chosen speed when the road clears or you change lanes. This is almost certainly the way forward and a potential accident saver, but in this application I found it often led to a rather jerky combination of slowing and accelerating. The radar over-ride can be disabled leaving the car in normal cruise control mode. This was my choice most of the time and certainly when there was reasonably heavy traffic.

“Lexus - any Lexus - is all about supreme quiet, unrivalled build quality and owner satisfaction ratings to make other opulent carriage makers wince. The LS430 is the flagship and thus the standard setter. But this is really a car in which the reviewer should take a rear seat. The driver’s lot is most agreeable but the passenger is master.

“Two can laze in the sumptuous rear pews. Each rear seat has power operation, with its own memory function. Passengers enjoy fingertip control over their air con and seat temperature and ventilation preferences. But the coup de grace is the rear seat massage system. This gently soothes tired muscles and can be adjusted up and down the back - pure sybaritic pleasure. Of course this pampered pair enjoy their own sound system controls. There are retractable shades for the side windows, plus an electronic one for the rear window. These ensure peasant stares reveal nothing of the occupants’ identity or their activities.

“Safety features big time in the Lexus armory. Every electronic motion control device is present and ever ready to correct virtually any pilot error. A wide angle rear vision camera means the driver can see everything in his path when reversing. The radar-activated cruise control is not exclusive to Lexus at the top end of the market, but Lexus does claim to be the first with air bags to protect the driver’s and front passenger’s knees. More airbags provide protection from chest to hip in side impacts in addition to full length curtain air bags to soften a blow to the head.

“The hush and ride comfort over all but the harshest bitumen chips has to be experienced. The quality of the wood and leather interior trims and all fittings is of the highest order, but the test Lexus was not quite perfect with a couple of shut-lines which were not quite spot on and one carpet piece not quite fitting under a ventilation duct.

“Lexus makes no claim to sportiness for its premium model, but in all respects it is well above the level of mere competence. For pure driver involvement one would possibly still choose the Audi A8 or Jaguar XJR in the full limo class, but they still fall a mite shy of the Lexus in the areas where the Japanese contender is standard bearer.

“But let the laddie do the driving. As master and mistress of our realm we will choose to luxuriate unconcernedly in the opulence of the rear compartment. Just wake us gently on arrival.”

Thank you John for your impressions of the latest Lexus. Like others in that range, the Lexus is really for the rear seat owner. After all, if you’re going to spend over 7 million baht for your car, you can afford 100,000 baht a year for a chauffeur (I wouldn’t be so crass as to just call him ‘the driver’).

Autotrivia Quiz

Last week I asked where the chequered flag, denoting the finish of a motor race, came from. Why was it made of alternate black and white squares, and when was it introduced? This was really a trick question, as I do not know the full answer, and neither did my usual fonts of all knowledge. I did have a photograph of the finish of the Vanderbilt Cup in 1908, showing the chequered flag, but nothing else. I am still hoping that one of the readers can come up with the definitive answer.

So to this week. And this is one I do know the answer to - Convertibles with electric operation of the folding roof are the norm these days. But it was not always so. I can well remember fighting with recalcitrant roofs on MG TC’s, running around from side to side as you gradually got the thing up - while getting wetter and wetter. However, the question this week is when did the first power top convertible go into production, and what was the make of the car?

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

Good luck!

Thailand Grand Touring Car meeting this weekend too!

The slick professional Thailand Grand Touring Car promoters have a race meeting at the Bira circuit (Highway 36 outside Pattaya) this weekend. The meeting will feature the “Le Mans” style single seaters, the Sport Challenge cars for new drivers and the more powerful Sport Grand Champion for the professional racers. To add a little flavour, they will have a one hot lap style of qualifying on the Sunday morning, similar to the new qualifying format used in F1. There is also competition for the Group N+C sedan cars.

Some novelty events to keep the crowd interested include the Tiger Superfast double drag with U-turn! This is for 125 cc motorcycles and has the bikes doing a drag race up the straight, completing a U-turn and racing to the start/finish!

The electric Nano-bikes, also made by the local Tiger Motorcycle Company, will be on the Bira go-kart circuit, and you can rent one to have some fun.

Club racing is being reintroduced at this meeting, and after the 30 lap main feature for the Sport Grand Champion cars, there will be races for the Subaru Impreza club and another for the VW Beetle group! A massed field of VeeDubs makes the imagination boggle.

Sunday’s events start at 8.30 a.m. for qualifying, with the first race at 10.15 a.m.