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Allroads lead to roam?

Someone at Audi HQ in Ingolstadt plainly wasn’t paying attention during their English lessons. The result is the A6 allroad quattro wears badging without capital letters. In future I will be spelling it properly. Thankfully the engineering department clearly did have their eyes fixed to the blackboard.

All white, all white, it's a big beast

All white, all white, it’s a big beast


The Allroad is a great concept: a regular estate with go-anywhere capability. It’s got off-road equipment like Hill Descent Control. Of course it’s four-wheel drive; and you can raise the ride height courtesy of the air suspension. However, I’m not sure I’d rather have this than a regular SUV if I was going to be spending a lot of time in the muddy stuff. But I won’t be. And nor will the majority of Allroad drivers making it road-biased for a reason, although it’s a big car and you really notice its girth on rural roads.

While Audis are rightly praised for the beauty of their interiors, for me, the engine and transmission are the high point of the A6 Allroad. The creamy 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel has a hefty 428lb ft of torque meaning a remarkably swift 0-60mph time of 6.6 seconds. Claimed economy is 44.8mpg on the combined cycle and I’m regularly easing into the early 40s. This gives me hope that when the engine is properly run-in the manufacturer’s estimate will be attainable.

Of course the interior is a work of art. But at night it’s particularly lovely, glowing red and white with digital clarity to its analogue feel. The alcantara suede seats are initially comfortable too. However, they adjust up and down as well as tilting which causes a bit of to-ing and fro-ing between Mrs F and I because I like lots of support under my legs, she doesn’t.

That brings me to the pedals. As with so many cars that are designed to be left-hand drive, in swapping the steering wheel over, the pedals have had to be angled slightly to the left obviously to cater for something in the bowels of the engine compartment. You don’t notice it on short trips. But on longer journeys the very slightly different angle that my legs have to point in relation to my body snuggled into the seat manifests itself in lower back ache. There is an answer: I sit pointing slightly to the left. It feels a bit weird initially but it’s better than back pain.

As with other Audis, it’s got the company’s excellent MMI system to control just about every electronic function on the car. Initially I spent time deliberating over the best setting. But aside from having the engine set to Sport, where gears are held for longer, or Economy where the engine feels like a 1.6, I’ve come to the conclusion that it actually doesn’t make a huge difference so it tends to get left on Auto.

A tech step too far?

A tech step too far?


That said, I haven’t quite got to grips with the MMI Touch electronic ‘pad’. The idea seems straightforward. Instead of using the regular MMI controller to select letters from a list, you trace it on the pad with your finger. That’s fine for me: I’m left handed. It’s not so easy for the majority. Plus I’ve found with letters like Ps and Ms it works satisfactorily. But it does get confused between V and U, 1 and I and 5 and S. That might be my writing, or it might be a technology leap too far.

One thing that definitely isn’t is the Direct Shift Gearbox. It’s seven speed and with all that torque it’s quick to grab its smallest ratio. Thanks to the twin clutches, changes are almost imperceptible. My one complaint is the same person responsible for the car’s name clearly had a hand in calling this S-tronic with a lower case t.


Time to e-Volvo? It’s the Concept Coupe

Volvo’s future starts here in the shape of this slinky Concept Coupe to be displayed at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September. But it’s a lot more than just a pretty looking grand tourer designed to evoke memories of the 1960s P1800. It introduces a new way of building cars, a new engine strategy and a glimpse into Volvo’s future design direction.

Now owned by Chinese car maker Geely, Volvo can no longer rely on previous owner Ford to provide the basis for its cars. The result is the new and completely flexible in terms of length, width and height Scalable Product Architecture (SPA). This will spawn two more concept cars before it makes its production debut on the all-new XC90 in autumn 2014. A second scalable architecture will be used for the smaller cars.

The SPA has no capability for larger engines. That’s because the days of eight, six and even five-cylinder Volvos are history. The Concept Coupe still manages a grunty 400bhp and 600Nm of torque courtesy of a two-litre four cylinder petrol engine that is boosted by a turbo charger and super charger along with an electric motor driving the rear axle. Other four cylinders in either diesel or petrol will use turbos to achieve the same power as much larger capacity engines. Expect a 1.5-litre three cylinder spun off the same architecture.

The 1960s P1800 is arguably Volvo’s most famous and desirable model ever. The Concept Coupe features a lot of that car’s design signatures although design director Thomas Ingenlath refutes that this makes the new car retro: “Using elements from the P1800 exterior and interior has nothing to do with being retro. We are using these subtle links to a glorious past to create a future where sheer beauty becomes a recognised part of Volvo’s identity. That journey starts with Concept Coupé.”

The grille is apparently still a work in progress and it’s likely to change before its finished iteration graces the front of the new XC90 next year. However, the sleeker looking bonnet, the way the grille appears to float, the ever increasing size of the ironmark badge, the sharper shoulder line, and the headlights featuring new T-shaped Daytime Running Lights are all design details that will grace future Volvos.

The interior was designed around the large touch screen which works like a regular tablet to control navigation, entertainment and ventilation. The lack of buttons means those that are present have had their quality improved. Each seat features an AUX-IN and USB port and the gear lever is made of crystal glass, which surprisingly is road legal.

Why a concept for a coupe? Is Volvo about to unveil a replacement for its most iconic car ever? Sadly no. But that shouldn’t stop us enjoying the Concept Coupe for what it is, a fine looking car that points the way to an exciting future.


Memories of James Hunt

Never meet your heroes, they say, and ‘they’ could have a point. The reminiscing about James Hunt reminded me of the time I met him. A bit of background first. Niki Lauda’s fiery accident and James Hunt’s subsequent last-gasp dash to the 1976 World Championship is what alerted me to Formula One. I was a Hunt fan, briefly, until I was alerted to Carlos Reutemann. But that’s another story.

BLOG James Hunt2Anyway, fast forward to 1992 and I was working for Autosport. As such I had to host a table at the Autosport Awards ceremony. On that table along with ex-F1 driver and now the late Innes Ireland, there was ex-Williams technical director Patrick Head, scribe Nigel Roebuck and James Hunt. I can’t remember now what Hunt was wearing but I struggle to imagine he was in Black Tie.

As nominal head of the table, I had to organise the collection for charity. And I remember Hunt had the usual racing driver’s long pockets and short arms. In fact when I suggested he might like to contribute, his rebuttal was pretty firm. But then I was blissfully unaware that he was as skint as he apparently was. Nonetheless, it rather took the sheen off the legend for me.

BLOG James HuntA few months later, it was a Tuesday afternoon. Autosport was just closing for press, everything had been written, designed, subbed, and proofed when one of the writers said he’d heard Hunt had had a heart attack. All hands to the pumps. I rang Mark Wilkin who was the producer of BBC Sport’s F1 coverage. He answered the phone after a couple of rings and I could tell instantly from the shock in his voice that the rumours of Hunt’s heart attack were true. In fact, they were worse: Hunt had died. We really earned our money that afternoon, putting together an obituary on the fly and getting a news story about his death researched and in the magazine within hours. It somehow seemed wrong that after racing in one of the sport’s most dangerous eras, he should die at home aged just 45.

Did meeting him ruin the myth? No. But it’s fair to say it tarnished it for a while. Twenty years down the line though and Hunt is still up there with the greats in my mind.


A3’s no let down

Getting a puncture is generally pretty annoying. But it’s even more irritating when you can’t see what’s caused it. Even Kwikfit couldn’t find why the Audi A3’s rear nearside tyre had lost pressure. But as I had some miles to cover that weekend, and the tyre wouldn’t stay inflated, I wasn’t in a position to wait for a detailed investigation. A new tyre was sourced quickly, fitted and I was on my way with the old carcass in the boot while I figure out how to work out why it went down.

Audi A3 test car

It ain’t sexy… but it got me home

The puncture did enable me to discover three things. The Tyre Pressure Monitoring System fitted to the A3 does actually work and informed me something was awry before the tyre became dangerously flat. The A3’s jack and space saver spare were easy and efficient to use in my hour of need. And after ringing my local independent tyre fitter, Blackcircles.com and Kwikfit, the latter proved the cheapest more than £20 less than my local garage.

Puncture aside, the A3 is proving the perfect travelling companion. It might not have the extra room, or doors, of the Sportback but there haven’t been many complaints from the 12-year-old daughter who invariably ends up in the back. The boot has proved more than adequate too, long enough for a Christmas tree, and commodious enough for old carpet and underlay from two medium sized rooms in one go.

The A3’s 2.0 turbo diesel pulls strongly and according to the onboard computer appears to be returning economy in the late 40s. Even though I’ve engaged the Efficiency Programme which gives me ‘helpful’ (read slightly patronising) advice such as ‘Use Start/Stop’, economy remains disappointingly shy of the claimed 68.9mpg.

The winter’s extreme rain enabled me to put the automatic wipers to the test more than I would have liked and they’re the best I’ve come across so far. Unlike examples from other makers which either don’t come on as soon as you want and then remain wiping manically when the rain has stopped, the A3’s system appears to judge conditions as I would.

The winter tyres have proved themselves too. In the various cold spells, while everyone around me slithered and skidded to a stop, PJJ’s progress was serene. Even up the relatively steep hill to my house the traction control light resolutely refused to illuminate. Only being brutishly heavy footed – in the name of research obviously – caused it to wink and the front wheels to scrabble on the snow. It somehow made the extra expense of replacing the punctured winter tyre worthwhile.


Toy Story

When I was a kid back in the early 70s I lost a Corgi James Bond Aston Martin DB5. I remember the traumatic events well. I was on a walk with my parents. We stopped on a bench for a rest, I put down the Aston and a Jaguar D-type ‑ my two favourite toy cars ‑ and when we left, there they stayed. Of course we went back but astonishingly in that apparently deserted wood there was another toy car fan who had made off with my cars. Bugger. I’ve still got the D-type’s little white plastic driver to this day, a memento to my youthful forgetfulness.

BLOG Bond AstonAnyway, the point of this is that the Aston Martin is highly collectible now. If you’ve got one that’s immaculate, in its box with the spare villain to be propelled out through the sun roof via working ejector seat, you’re looking at £800. Other models of the era are similarly valuable.

Of course condition is the key. The rubber tyres apparently perish with age and models that weren’t manufactured in any great volume will always be the most valuable. As will cars that are in their boxes. And that’s where it all goes wrong. When you’re a five-year old car fan, you’re not interested in the packaging. You just want to get your hands on the treasure within and start scooting it along the kitchen floor. And let’s be honest, boxes back then could be pretty rudimentary affairs anyway. Saving the packaging was never top of the agenda.

Neither was preserving the condition. I had a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. It was in a metallic red paint. Beautiful. Until it got battered against various skirting boards. So what did I do? Repainted it of course. By hand. It looked worse than in its battered state and now it’s pretty much worthless.

Of course collectors themselves don’t have a great image. You might imagine grown men who spend too much time with their mothers. I would too, except I know a couple of collectors; one of them’s in the family. And they’re both remarkably normal. They collect because people collect things. That their collections will be worth a small fortune in the fullness of time is a happy by product. Did they collect as kids? Of course not. And that’s why their equivalents who stashed toy cars away in attics in their boxes in the 60s and 70s so they’re now in immaculate condition with their boxes were actually remarkably sensible. Even if they did live with their mums…


Sharing a Chinese with Schumacher

One of the stranger evenings I’ve had was spent with Michael Schumacher, Eddie Irvine and a model at the Dorchester Hotel. First a bit of house keeping. The model was Irvine’s girlfriend of the time (it was 1996). And we weren’t doing the sort of things footballers are famous for doing in hotel rooms. We were in a private part of the Dorchester’s Chinese restaurant.

At the time I knew Eddie pretty well. I was ghost writing a magazine column for him and he was in London for a Ferrari sponsor do. He asked me if I wanted to meet for a drink and after we’d had a couple he casually mentioned Michael was joining us. And that’s how I found myself having dinner with the reigning F1 world champion of the time. I found Schumacher quiet, a bit shy and quite serious but with remarkable humility. He didn’t appear over burdened with charisma but in the company of Irvine that was unsurprising.

The next time I met him was a couple of years later. I’d gone to Monza in Italy where he was testing to interview him. My plane was late departing so I was late arriving at the track. Schumacher however knew I was coming and altered his schedule to fit me in. After we’d done the interview, we carried on talking about life; the pain of delayed planes, sleepless nights as a dad of young kids and road cars, something he’s fascinated with.

For those reasons I’ve always had a soft spot for Schumacher. And unlike the rest of the world I’ve enjoyed his comeback. This year he’s had the better of Nico Rosberg in qualifying and when his car hasn’t broken he’s proved there’s plenty of fight left in him. And at 43 he’s a man.

Without wishing to get all homo erotic about this, when I got into F1 the drivers were all men. James Hunt won his title aged 29. In 1978, the top three in the championship, Mario Andretti, Ronnie Peterson and Carlos Reutemann, were 38, 34 and 36 respectively. Now most drivers still have spots and are generally viewed as past it when they get to 33. For us older geezers, 43-year-old Schumi is driving proof that age doesn’t have to count against you.


Alex Zanardi – what heros are made of

When double Paralympic gold medallist Alex Zanardi first featured on my radar it was 1991 and he was driving for an Italian team called Il Barone Rampante (The Rampant Baron). Colleagues close to the team alleged that rather than driver debriefs, its motorhome was used mainly for the rampant snorting of white powder. It was an ‘interesting’ environment, not least for Zanardi who unassisted by the devil’s dandruff was attempting to win a major motor racing championship.

ImageI met him first eight years later on his second coming to Formula One. I interviewed him two thirds of the way through the year. Things weren’t going well. He hadn’t scored a point and as it turned out wasn’t going to. But he was punctual, polite and gave full attention to my questions about how he could turn his season around. Some of his erstwhile fellows – stand up please Ralf Schumacher – managed to hide those qualities remarkably well.

Three years later I spoke to a very different Alex Zanardi. His Formula One career had ended and racing an IndyCar he’d lost his legs in a horrific crash. Yet the same competitive instinct and trade mark good humour was present.

Asked if he wanted to give son Niccolo a sibiling, he laughed: “No, (wife) Daniela is happy with one. I would like more, and believe me I could! I might have lost my legs but I’m still capable. All the blood that was in my legs has to go somewhere!” And you couldn’t keep that grin away. You might have wondered if Ralf Schumacher, his one-time Williams team mate, had been in touch after Zanardi’s life-changing crash. Again, that broad grin: “That’s a ridiculous question! Ralf can drive a car quickly but not much more. Of course he hasn’t called me.”

Rather than wallow in self-pity, the overriding impression he gave was of a man determined to continue enjoying life. He’d designed his own prosthetic legs after growing frustrated with the ones he’d been given. And one of the other memorable quotes in the interview was when he said: “I have so much in my life.” Now of course he has even more: two Olympic gold medals and the promise that a US team will provide a car for the legendary Indy 500 oval race. Don’t bet against it happening.


Holding out for two other heroes

So Bradley Wiggins is a fully paid up super hero. We admire his achievements and his dry sense of humour, even his bloody sideburns are close to being deified. But most of all we love him because he’s human.

It actually makes me rather sad for a couple of our other sporting superstars. Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button have been waving the Union Flag on the world stage for years now and they don’t get anything like the adulation Wiggo gets.

That everyone can do cycling and no one can drive a Formula One car doesn’t stack up as a reason. The sort of bike Wiggo rides is about as similar to my treader as an F1 car is to the family VW Polo. Part of it is undoubtedly that after years of the national football side failing woefully in the beautiful game, we seem to have found a sport that we Brits are good at. The other part is their respective characters, or rather the way Hamilton and Button’s have been so carefully managed?

I’ve met and interviewed Lewis Hamilton and he’s a nice enough guy. But McLaren keeps him too closeted from the real world. When I interviewed him there was me and another journalist and four, yes FOUR PR people. It was like they were waiting for me to get up and mug him for his TAG Heuer.

Wiggo on the other hand seems refreshingly unaffected. After Wiggo’s time trial success, we saw him having a well-earned night out on the Vodka and Tonic. He was with his mates having a laugh. When we see Hamilton out he’s with his pop chick girlfriend or a celeb pal. It seems as fake as his oversized diamond studs look. Button seems more interesting and charismatic but we just don’t see him period, which is a shame for sports fans and sponsors alike.

Wiggo is unlikely ever to be as rich as either Button or Hamilton. But unless he changes dramatically he will always be the bigger hero. I think I’d sacrifice a few quid for that.


The rough with the smooth

At the recent British Grand Prix, I read a newspaper story that made me do a double take. Jenson Button was suggesting that if it was raining it would be too dangerous to race. He complained that there was a river running across the track at one of its fastest points and that if the cars hit it at speed they could spin out of control. Errr, how about slowing down?

I found it astonishing that someone who is paid multi millions to drive a racing car could be so thoughtless to the thousands of paying punters who’ve helped elevate him to that lofty position. It’s fine if Button doesn’t want to race. He can get into his private helicopter, fly to his private jet and go back to his multi-million pound Monaco existence. It’s not quite so simple for the fans in the stands, many of whom save up for their grand prix weekend.

If Button can’t take the rough with the smooth and drive in torrential conditions, then it’s his right to slow down a bit, or even abandon the race. No one thought any the less of Niki Lauda when he withdrew from the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix. Ditto Alain Prost after the rain-soaked 1988 British GP. What Button is wrong to do, in my humble opinion, is suggest that the whole race should be called off. Just because he doesn’t fancy it doesn’t mean there won’t be drivers further down the grid and even McLaren’s tester Oliver Jarvis who wouldn’t grab the opportunity with both hands.

For a story I was writing recently I had to select some clips of F1 drivers doing their thing. Check this one on board with Nigel Mansell at the start of the 1991 San Marino GP.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ORkRk0J85A. Bear in mind that what we see is what the driver sees in this instance. Never heard Mansell complain about racing. Many other things, never racing.


English speaking F1 pundits on the Beeb. I don’t think so

Why does it seem to be the law that the BBC has to have pundits that can’t speak English?

I spend a lot of time at weekends listening to Radio 5 Live. One of their football pundits (I’d name him if I could remember his name) seems to have real problems with his verb tenses. Sorry mate but: “He’s came into the box” isn’t English. Neither is: “He’s went and done that.”

But at least I know what he’s getting at. Listen to the F1 coverage and you have the slick skills of James Allen on the one hand. And then there’s Jaime Algersuari. His English is an awful lot better than my Spanish. And he’s obviously a much better driver than me. Shame his English isn’t good enough to convey that.

You can almost hear his brain whirring as he translates from his native language before adding his pearls of wisdom. Which actually don’t bring any kind of wisdom at all. As far as I can see his only function is to give Allen the chance to have a rest and a mouthful of water. The result is you could have just about any F1 fan sitting in the pundit’s seat and they’d probably bring more value to the show.

Then on the BBC there’s Eddie Jordan, another commentator for whom English is a second language. Trouble is, he’s got an ego too. The result is complete gibberish most of the time. As Eddie Irvine recently said: “He waffles and waffles and doesn’t say anything. He goes round and round and hopes that by the end you’ll have forgotten what the question was because he sure has.” To the point as ever.


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