The F1 season kicks off – at last!

Bahrain has a Grand Prix circuit constructed in a country with no tradition of motor racing, but with a desire to enjoy the prestige of being host to a major international sporting event. And the necessary financial wherewithal to be able to do so. How times change – the best driver’s circuit (Spa in Belgium) unable to host F1 this year through being bankrupt, but the sandy deserts can!

Bahrain (Sakhir) is not a single circuit but a complex of six individual tracks which includes a drag strip and an oval test track. From the beginning Bahrain was clearly interested in more than an annual event because it incorporated the infrastructure to run club races and to become a centre for motor sport in the Middle East.

The test oval suggests that Bahrain is interested in attracting motor manufacturers who might wish to test prototypes at sustained high speed in very hot conditions. The drag strip suggests a use for all those supercars which are bought by wealthy Arabs and which otherwise receive little serious use. There is no shortage of interest in cars in the Middle East, and no shortage of money, and no shortage of interest in competition with camel and horse racing being immensely popular, but until the complex opened in March, 2004, there were no bespoke motor sport venues.

To judge from the flexibility of the complex, which cost USD 150 million to construct, Bahrain hopes to become the driving force of motor racing in the region. Read those numbers again – USD 150 million. That is why you will not see an F1 track in Thailand, unless a certain gentleman with very clever telecommunications children decides he wants one!

The Sakhir track is quite superb, but Bahrain must sort out issues such as hotel accommodation if it is to be taken seriously and not merely regarded as a race-track in the desert.

The race begins at (I think) 2 p.m. in Bahrain, which would make it 6 p.m. here, but please check your TV guides.

More Doggy Doo in the American auto scene

It really looks like the house(s) of cards are tumbling down in the US. With volume sellers GM and Ford cutting back, all their suppliers are also feeling the pinch. Delphi, a major GM supplier, was the first to seek bankruptcy protection last year, and now Dana Corporation is doing the same.

Auto News in the US reports that Dana, the 100 year old company that supplied parts to the Model T, the World War II-vintage Jeep and the classic London taxicab has sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in New York.

The filing ended several weeks of speculation about the deteriorating financial condition of the axle, driveshaft and heavy components manufacturer based in Toledo, Ohio.

Dana supplies components for a significant number of platforms at Ford Motor Co. and GM. About 25 percent of Dana’s business in 2004 was with Ford, according to Dana’s annual report. Another 11 percent of its business was with GM that year.

CEO Mike Burns, who took Dana’s helm in March 2004 after a 34 year career at GM, has been restructuring the company for the last few months, but Dana’s stock has continued to slump. Burns said last week that the company was in negotiations with its bankers and hoped to reach an agreement on new lines of credit in two weeks. Dana missed a USD 21 million bond interest payment on March 1.

Dana has been beset by multiple challenges in recent months, including a federal accounting probe, declining business from Ford and GM and higher raw material costs. The company posted a USD 1.23 billion loss through the first nine months of 2005 with all but USD 20 million of the loss stemmed from one-time charges and write-downs.

Without new lines of credit, the Chapter 11 filing was inevitable for the company, analysts said. “Failure to obtain a new (credit line) facility would lead to default and likely bankruptcy,” S&P analyst Daniel DiSenso wrote in his report. Both S&P and Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Dana’s credit ratings for the second time in a week last week.

The missed interest payment prompted the second major sell-off of Dana stock in five trading days. Shares in the company were down 44 percent, in massive trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Dana, which employs about 45,000 people globally, would be the third-largest automotive bankruptcy case in history, based on total assets, behind Delphi and Federal-Mogul Corp. Dana ranks No. 15 on the Automotive News list of the top 100 global suppliers with worldwide original-equipment automotive parts sales of USD 9.06 billion in 2004. It listed USD 7.88 billion in assets on Sept. 30, 2005.

F1 fuel can make a fool out of you!

Many years ago, I was racing a “production” Isuzu Gemini sedan and was back to running 97 octane pump fuel. The compression ratio of the engine was not high enough to warrant thinking about anything else, but when the Formula 1 circus came to Adelaide, for the Australian Grand Prix, I wondered if here was a source of “instant” horsepower.

After the GP weekend, somehow, a drum of the special F1 fuel was left behind by the Williams team, and made its way to Brisbane, 2000 km away, where I was waiting. This fuel was really special, very much more efficient thermodynamically than 97 octane, or even 115 Avgas.

Taking Gemini to the rolling road dynamometer we tipped in the F1 fuel and looked at the horsepower numbers. Instant horsepower, and big grins all round. The weekend would be very successful, we predicted.

We rolled out for practice, and I could feel the extra urge immediately. However, the extra urge only lasted three laps. The crew set about working out why it stopped, and it turned out that the fuel was not getting to the engine. But why not? There was plenty in the tank, and so we began to take out each fuel line looking for the blockage.

It was then we found that the F1 fuel was eating the inside of the standard fuel lines, making gummy deposits all the way along the hoses. F1 cars, of course, do not run rubber/neoprene fuel lines, like production Isuzu Gemini’s do!

We had outsmarted ourselves, but at least we did find a good use for the F1 fuel. It was the greatest way to get the BBQ coals burning. After dousing in F1 fuel, you tossed a match at the BBQ from about 20 paces away. Whooompa, and the BBQ was ready! Fuel technology wins again.

Autotrivia Quiz

quiz car

Last week I asked what cars had four reverse gear speeds? (And the answer is not Italian!). The correct answer was Delage, Delahaye, Salmson and Voisin. These cars had the Cotal electric selection gearbox, and a forward or reverse lever on the floor. This gave four forwards or four reverses! There was also the Maybach (which had eight forward gears as well) and the Messerschmitt (Thank you Peter Eades for the info on the bubble car).

So to this week. Take a look at these fine machines. What is it, and what is it based on?

For the Automania FREE beer this week, be the first correct answer to email [email protected] Good luck!

Will it be Renault again this year?

Barichello and Button

In pre-season testing, the Renault has looked very strong and again almost bullet-proof. As was shown last year, reliability wins races, and also championships.

However, it is a different ball game in 2006, and this could change the order. To start with, current world champion Fernando Alonso will be going the McLaren at the end of the year, so will not be Renault’s favorite son in 2006. Having made the decision to move, without telling Flavio Briatore, the Renault team boss, was a very silly (and immature) move in my books. There is also the query as to whether Renault are prepared to tip in the millions of dollars needed to stay at the top, while the parent manufacturer is not doing all that well.

There is also the fact that Michelin, Renault’s supplier, is pulling out at the end of the year. Do you think that they will continue to pour millions of dollars into tyre development in 2006? I doubt it.

This year it also looks as if there will be three other teams at the top of the league. Honda has a strong pairing with Button and Barichello, but this could come undone if both of them start tripping over their own ego’s. Button has done more than 100 races and is still waiting to win, while Barichello needs to justify leaving Ferrari, where he was always going to be Number 2, to try and be Number 1.

Ferrari will also be there. 2005 was such a disaster after being unbeatable for many seasons, that they will be trying even harder in 2006. They have the driver in Michael Schumacher, they have a happy Number 2 in Massa (who is probably just a seat warmer for Valentino Rossi in 2007) and they have the infrastructure and mental ability to win races.

McLaren look like they have the pace again – but will they suffer from the unreliability which lost them the 2005 championships? Make no mistake, Renault did not “win” in 2005 – McLaren-Mercedes “lost” the championship in 2005. However, Raikkonen is hungry and although Mercedes have improved since Raikkonen’s outburst in January where he said, “the biggest part of the problem is the engine,” the Finn is still cautious about his chances in Sakhir. “We have had a productive couple of days in Valencia this week, we had some good pace with the car and I set the fastest time,” he said. “But testing is very different to being on the race track. I am now looking forward to getting back behind the wheel in Bahrain and driving the car in a competitive environment to see where we really are performance-wise.”

And that really says it all. Until the cars get to Bahrain, it is still a matter of conjecture, as to who is the quickest. However, please do not put your money on Yuji Ide in the (not so) Super Aguri. At last count he was seven seconds off the pace. I really doubt whether he should be there at all, while his team leader is super-crunch Sato, and is also another driver with no chance of winning anything, other than a wall.