24 November 2006

The Last Formula One Race

(The main part of this article was written in June 2005 after I attended the US Grand Prix where only six cars started.)

You probably already heard about the 14 Michelin-tyred drivers who didn't start the US Grand Prix and the consequent 73 lap Ferrari, Jordan, Minardi parade. Let me tell you first hand what it was like at the track.

It was pathetic.

Nobody in the crowd had a clue about what was about to happen until after the warm-up lap when 14 cars pulled straight into their garages. I thought they must all be changing tyres and starting from the pits and I said as much to my two mates who I had dragged along to watch their first F1 race. "This is going to be very interesting, fellas. All these cars are all going to start from pit lane! Should make for a very interesting race.". Wrong. They didn't change tyres - they just didn't race. The crowd was absolutely stunned. So was the track commentator Tom Carnegie who was lost for words. (Carnegie has called every major race at the Indianapolis motor speedway since 1946 and knows how to talk about motor sport.)

The "race", if you can call it that, was a total farce (it started on-time of course - the penalties for a late-start and all that lost satellite air-time are too high even for a rich sport like F1 to countenance). For the first 10 laps or so it seemed like all six cars were turns 5 & 6 at the same time. That's how slow the Ferraris were going. (Schumacher qualified 3 seconds faster than the slowest Minardi and would normally have been half a lap ahead by lap 10.)

The day could have been salvaged in a well-deserved ironic twist when Schumacher drove Barichello off the track in turn one, however they managed to avoid taking each other out (perhaps the penalties for that are higher than for a late start) and the charade continued right to its pathetic end. It's a pity - Ferrari deserved to DNF and a Minardi 1-2 would have been a fitting end to the whole debacle.

The fans, to use the local vernacular, were pissed. People walked out, threw stuff onto the track, gave the bird to the drivers, booed the teams, made signs with "$'s back" and "Axe Max" and generally tried to express how thoroughly disgusted they were at being ripped off in such a "fuck y'all" kind of way.

I was listening to the TV coverage on a scanner and heard the "off air" chat between the commentators and the director. Good thing they were off air. Speed TV interviewed a bunch of drivers while the farce was unfolding and couldn't use any of the interviews because the drivers were all swearing too much.

So who was right and who was wrong? Michelin? The FIA? The Teams? Ferrari? The Track? The Bubba in the Corner 6 stand who spilled his beer in my camera bag? Who the hell cares!

Imagine if you charged a quarter of a million people a chunk of change to watch an event and you didn't deliver. For a European-based sport that is trying hard to build it's US market share it's difficult to imagine a more stupid act. They should have figured something out and run a safe, competitive race. Or at least refunded the fourty bucks I spent on five Fosters and a pork sandwich. Actually, come to think of it, getting drunk was the highlight of the day. That and the pit girl holding number 42 for the Formula BMW support race. And the girl holding 6, and the one holding 13 and the one holding 7. And the one holding 22. And the one standing opposite the one holding 22. And the one behind her. The pork sandwich wasn't too rough either.

The FIA can take their over-priced, over-hyped flying circus and shove it up their rich, fat arse. That's the last F1 race I'm paying my hard earned money to see.


PS I wonder if they'll have the same pit girls next year? That might make it worth going. I'll let you know.

PPS (November 2006) I didn't go the next year, and neither did tens of thousands of other disenfranchised fans. 2006 attendance was way down from 2005 and a mere fraction of the 225,000 that attended the 2000 race. There were even empty seats in Stand H and those are premium seats that are usually sold out months before the race. The kind souls at the US GP ticket office mailed me three free tickets, and free parking, all I had to do was drive 2 hours up the road. Sorry fellas - I have better things to do.

21 November 2006

Cars and computers go together like software and viruses

Ever noticed how computers are taking over more and more of the car's operations? In the space of a few short years computers now control the car's engine, throttle, gearbox, drivetrain, steering and brakes. Not to mention the stereo, navigation, climate control, lights, wipers and seats. The key to this amazing and rapid computerisation is software. This is especially true in high-performance vehicles that use electronic aids in an attempt to wring every last increment of performance out of those four little contact patches where the rubber meets the road.

Cue the Mazda6 MPS - a turbo-charged, all-wheel drive, uber-sedan that applies lots of clever software to a very sophisticated drivetrain to produce very high levels of performance. I recently test-drove the Mazda6 MPS and I can report that it's a sophisticated, refined and very rapid motor car. It's a remarkable car.

One of the more remarkable things about the 2006 model Mazda6 MPS, aside from the ballistic acceleration, tenacious grip and sure-footed handling, is the brochure. Not for the usual rich artwork (Wow - look at that blurred car! Will my car look like that?) and ego-flattering imagery (Your heartbeat will accelerate rapidly in the MPS as beautiful women throw themselves onto your bonnet and scream "Pick Me! Pick Me!"). No, the truly remarkable thing about the Mazda6 MPS brochure is the last page on the Mazda Maintenance Program that confidently asserts that one of the many benefits of owning this vehicle are the regular, direct from the factory…(wait for it)… software updates.

"… Mazda Service Centres can receive constant updates for Mazda6 MPS from Mazda Motor Corporation Japan"

Constant software updates? What is this, Windows Update for my car? Do I have to register? What if I only have a dial-up connection? What if I have a Mac? Should I backup my car before applying an update?

The brochure continues:

"Among other things, they can include tune-ups to the engine management system and revisions to the all-wheel drive system."

Among other things? What other things? Korean language support? New device drivers? I can understand revisions to the engine management system, but revisions to the all-wheel drive system? What’s that all about? Adding a fifth wheel?

I've been hanging around software for long enough to know what this is all about. It's about bugs. The thing has buggy software. Mazda, of course, knows the software is buggy (after all, they have the Test Plan and Final Integration Test results) and their spin doctors are turning bug fixes into an automotive must-have.

As I contemplate the ownership experience of a Mazda6 MPS I can just imagine driving the car really fast and falling off the road. (Well, it has happened before...). The conversation might go something like this:

Police Officer/Tow Truck Driver/Insurance Agent/Wife/God: "What happened?"

Me: "Well, I was driving a bit briskly around this off-camber, tightening radius corner and I pressed skip on my iPod and the thing spun backwards into the trees. It’s never done that before!"

Police Officer/Tow Truck Driver/Insurance Agent/Wife/God: "It wasn't the Nano, was it?"

Me: "The Nano?! No. It's a regular iPod."

Police Officer/Tow Truck Driver/Insurance Agent/Wife/God: "With the touch wheel or the click wheel?"

Me: "I dunno! It's the 20 Gig model. Anyway, what difference does that make?"

Police Officer/Tow Truck Driver/Insurance Agent/Wife/God: "Never mind. Were you running MPS SP2 with the updated MP3 and Yaw drivers?"

Me: "I dunno!! I ran MazdaUpdate a few weeks ago and it said something about "To enhance your Mazda experience you need to install Service Pack 2." I think it installed. How can you tell if it installed? Anyway, what difference does that make?"

Police Officer/Tow Truck Driver/Insurance Agent/Wife/God: "Never mind. It's a bit late now, isn't it!"

Me: "Ummm… Am I still licensed/insured/married/alive without the update?"

Now bugs can be serious, but that is only half of the story. The thing that they don’t tell you in the brochure is that where there is software, there are viruses. Sooner or later there will be car viruses (if they don't exist already). In fact, I might download the car virus creator kit (the updated version that supports MPS SP2) and start creating a few myself.

I’ll start with the carwash virus. This virus waits until the car is idling in neutral, moving forward slowly and the sensors indicate it’s raining and then winds all the windows down and sounds the horn. Should be very popular with the ladies.

Then I’ll do the roundabout virus - entry and exit strains. The entry strain waits until the car is entering a roundabout from a slow speed with large throttle opening and then sets engine output to 20% for two seconds, then 110% for two seconds while directing all power to the inside front wheel and giving maximum assist to the electric steering. This might help people learn how to drive onto the roundabout smoothly. The exit strain is for those turbo-nutters who are way past help. It waits until the car is doing a full throttle exit from a roundabout and just as the driver starts to unwind lock the virus triggers and engages the handbrake, turns the engine off, turns the hazards on, tunes the stereo to Radio National and turns the seat warmers on high. By the time the car stops the guy will be up to date on the latest book reviews as well as the weather in South America. The hazards are for the amusement of other drivers and the seat warmers will help the police tracker dogs if the driver shits himself.

Cars and computers – this should be a lot of fun.