Automania

Chinese GP this weekend

Ying Tong Iddle I Po, as Neddy Seagoon was oft to say, but the final GP of the 2006 season is this weekend. The Chinese GP arrives and the only map I have managed to find shows that the circuit designed by Messrs. Tilke and Wahl is very twisting. Last year’s race showed it did allow plenty of room (or opportunities) for passing, and we were pleasantly surprised to see much passing and repassing, the one aspect of F1 that has been missing for too long. However, since the Shanghai circuit cost 250 million dollars to construct, this is just a little out of the reach of most countries or race organizers.

The circuit architects Hermann Tilke and Peter Wahl are reported as saying, “The 5.4 kilometre racing track is shaped like the Chinese character ‘shang’, which stands for ‘high’ or ‘above’. Other symbols represented in the architecture originate from Chinese history, such as the team buildings arranged like pavilions in a lake to resemble the ancient Yuyan-Garden in Shanghai. Here, nature and technology are carefully used to create harmony between the elements.” (That should have put at least another few million dollars on the price!)

The race will start (I think) at 1 p.m. on Sunday, but as always, check your own TV feed, as I would not like to be held responsible of you miss the start!

The final race of the season in China should be interesting, even if just because Renault (and Flavio Briatore) wants both the drivers and the manufacturers trophies. Ron Dennis of McLaren has other ideas! By the way, it is also interesting that Raikkonen has won more GPs this year than Alonso. Alonso didn’t win the world championship - Raikkonen lost it!


Always follow the money!

Never neglect reading the financial pages of a newspaper. You will find some interesting motoring reading there, almost every day. The latest to be aired was the announcement that Toyota will buy an 8.7 percent stake in fellow Japanese automaker Fuji Heavy Industries. The interest here is that the 8.7 percent is coming from GM which is divesting itself of some of its shares in Fuji, the maker of Subaru.

It is not so long ago that GM were assembling the Zafira, badged as a Subaru Travik, for export to Japan. The times have changed somewhat.

GM, which owned 20 percent of Fuji Heavy, has been struggling recently, with financial houses downgrading GM bonds in light of the fact that the American auto industry is in disarray (not just GM) and the automaker is lumbered with huge pension and health care liabilities and has to address domestic sales going down, especially with the current oil prices.

GM will sell its remaining 11.4 percent stake in Fuji Heavy, so if you want to get in on the ground floor, now’s the time!

Getting back to Toyota, the Japanese giant will buy 68 million shares in Fuji Heavy and the two companies will study opportunities for tie-ups in research and development as well as production, Fuji Heavy said.

Fuji Heavy also said in the report that it would end a joint-development project with GM’s Saab brand and would book a 5 billion yen ($43.73 million) special loss in the current business year.

However, despite revising and special losses, Fuji Heavy still expects to make a 12 billion Yen profit for the year.

GM also owns 20 percent of Suzuki Motor Corp. and about 8 percent of Isuzu, while Toyota has ties with Daihatsu and Hino Motors.

Currently, by the number of cars produced, Toyota is the world’s number two, but when you look at profitability, Toyota is the clear world leader. There is a message there, which America and Europe have yet to address. Grand welfare schemes may attract the workers, but if the company cannot afford the pension schemes in the long run, there is a serious accounting deficit to be met.


Autotrivia Quiz

Last week I mentioned cars that fly, a common enough concept in science-fiction books and even featured in the cartoon TV series called “The Jetsons” in 1962. However, the auto bizz was already thinking about flying cars in 1935 when the U.S. Bureau of Commerce’s Experimental Division Section awarded a contract to a manufacturer to build one. The car had a single propeller and rotor blades for flight. The gear could be folded back over the fuselage to accommodate ground movement. Two passengers could sit side by side, and there was a small baggage storage area behind the seats. For road use, the 90 bhp engine was connected to the tail wheel by a shaft that was put in gear when the propeller was disengaged. Testing began in 1936 and continued until the company dissolved in the mid-1960s. The question was, what was the name of this flying car? It was the Pitcairn AC 35. Thanks for all the efforts that came in on this one, from all over the world.

So to this week. (Fingers poised over the Google button, and away we go!) A French car company decided to expand beyond its national boundaries and opened up a new factory in 1906. This venture was not successful and three years later it was taken over, and started producing cars using foreign designs and a line of credit from several banks. This was again not successful, so the principal creditor called in a railway engineer to run the manufacturing business. He turned out some very creditable designs (nothing like a railway engine), and although still somewhat financially shaky, the company still exists today. The question is - what was the name of the railway engineer?
For the Automania FREE beer this week, be the first correct answer to email [email protected]

Good luck!


What did we learn from the Japanese GP?

Well, firstly we (and Takuma Sato) learned that nobody is going to put up with driving such as he displayed in the GP. The end result of his kamikaze on Trulli was that he was excluded from the results. He has already been dropped in favour of Barichello at BAR next year (but rebranded as Honda) and I think he will find it very difficult to get a seat anywhere. I certainly would not be offering him one.

The second crasher, Jacques Villeneuve, claimed he was innocent after pushing Montoya off and into the wall. The stewards didn’t see it that way either, and Villeneuve was awarded a 25 second penalty for his driving efforts. Will Villeneuve still be on the grid in 2006, in the Sauber, to be rebranded as a BMW? Again, I certainly would not be offering him a chance, not even behind a supermarket trolley.

Despite the very biased and parochial nature of the British commentators, Button did drive well, but not as well as Webber or Coulthard, for my money. Webber had almost his best race of the year, and his seat will be confirmed for 2006 at Williams. Likewise, Coulthard showed that he still has the speed, the need and the desire.

Raikkonen did a sterling job to win, from 17th on the grid, and I think I (almost) saw the faintest flicker of a smile from him on the podium.


What happened to our cheap ECO car?

After years of debate, the government finally killed off the ECO (sometimes called ACEs car) project. This was an auto project to be fulfilled by Thailand’s auto manufacturers, which was for a small, fuel efficient car no more than 1.63 meters wide and 3.6 meters long and to retail for less than 350,000 baht.

The idea was that this would stimulate the auto-economy in this country, in the same way that the one-tonne pick-ups did, but it seems the thinking was flawed, right from the outset. While the marketplace wanted one-tonners, it was not so receptive towards mini-cars. The auto manufacturers also did not like the specifications being handed down to them, with a “do it our way, or don’t join the game” approach from government. The carrot being offered was special excise tax, but it was not enough. The manufacturers looked and also decided there was not enough ‘fat’ in the deal to make it worthwhile.

So by mutual agreement, the ECO car was killed off.

A brief look at vehicle production figures also tells the story. Passenger car production numbers have contracted in the past 12 months, going down almost 13 percent. In the same period the one-tonne pick-up figures have grown by almost one third year on year. In fact, the vehicle industry growth has been such that industry watchers are predicting that the one million vehicle mark will be exceeded this year. And that is in the face of the ever-upwards oil prices which get reflected daily at the pumps. (By the way, local motorcycle production is expected to pass 3.2 million units as well.)

If you are interested in passenger car numbers, Toyota is outselling Honda 2:1 with more than 50 percent market share. After Honda, all the other manufacturers are looking at single digit numbers. Getting back to ECO project, with numbers like those, why would Toyota even bother?


Why are pick-ups relatively so cheap?

The answer is simple - it is because of differential government rake-off, AKA “excise tax”. Did you know that even after recently re-adjusting the tax scales, passenger cars are taxed between 30-50 percent? Under 2 litres is the cheapest at the 30 percent level, while passenger cars developing more than 220 BHP or in engine size greater than 3 litres attract the maximum 50 percent impost.

Now look at pick-ups. A ‘standard’ pick-up attracts three percent duty, a double cab gets 12 percent, while the PPV’s (passenger pick-up vehicles) are at 20 percent. No wonder these vehicles represent good value in the marketplace.

However, there is an interesting segment waiting to be exploited, and that is the energy-saving vehicles. Hybrids get 10 percent tax, while Natural Gas Vehicles (NGV) or those burning 20 percent ethanol (E20 fuel, as opposed to the Gasohol 95 which is here already) are taxed at 20 percent. Ford Motor Company was ready to step in with their new E20 compatible Ford Focus, but the government has had a late rethink and delayed the excise tax reduction till 2009, claiming that there is no E20 fuel refined or produced here.