Monday, February 14, 2011

Little Cars, Big Fun, Could be Huge

We had a fantastic weekend racing at Infineon, BTM Motorwerks' Spec e30 was able to pick up right where we left off last season, right on top. While Brad was out in the #91 car on Sunday and the #92 car still a few steps short of track-readiness, I perused the NASA paddock looking for interesting things, and happened to run into Jim Jordan, from Mazda USA.

He had brought out their B-Spec Mazda 2, and with some introduction, a discovered shared love of the Mazdaspeed Protege, and proof I was indeed a card-carrying NASA member, Jim had me signed up to take the car out in the last session of the day.

Hopping into the little car, even with the stock dash and race equipment, everything falls right to hand, and taking off was indeed a bit like heading out to get groceries. Just with all the safety equipment and going via a few hilly laps of Infineon Raceway along the way. What's really great about this car, is what they didn't have to change to make it completely competent on the track. Stock suspension mounting points, stock engine and transmission, and otherwise off the shelf parts to build this car. Also especially neat is that so many new cars' electronic systems get very fussy from having parts removed, but Jim explained they'd just pulled a few parts out, and went racing. And this was the very same car that had been out for the 25 hours of Thunderhill, had done every single track session at the NASA event that weekend, and who knows what else in between.

And it was great. The stiffness of the suspension and chassis were very complementary and wherever you pointed the car, there it went. It didn't wallow around in some of the more technical areas like exiting the 3a-3b complex, and it was credibly stable through the faster areas like exiting the carousel T6, or just breathing off the throttle to make T10. Even the ABS kicked in predictably pushing a braking zone to the limit or avoiding slower traffic. Certainly, the power isn't anything that's going to bend anyone's mind, but setting up much more powerful cars on the brakes or just plain driving around them on the inside of T7 or outside of T2 kept me giggling the entire drive. All too soon, it was over, and I had to give the car back to the team to pack it up for its ride home.

Musing a little about the drive, I imagined some kind of not to distant world, where perhaps forty of these cars might show up to race in support of some larger series...particularly on a street circuit...some kind of crazy 'Keystone Cops do Monaco' event would be tremendously popular with race fans. Sure, a typical fan comes out to see the big boys race, the Rolex or ALMS or other sports cars, but a supporting series with cars that aren't just silhouettes, but real honest cars that they use for the mundane everyday movement, particularly two, three and four wide through the first few turns -- that is something that a race fan will really delight in seeing.

That also points too to the future of the series - it's great to have an easily accessible chassis, parts and support. And it's also great to drive a fun little car around for the day, something that's a joy to toss around, is light on consumables, but I personally think the future for building a car that's on sale now has got to be some lower end Pro series. Even just a little money and TV coverage could get quite a lot of these cars out all over the country, and not just from Mazda but any other manufacturer that have a sub-compact car they even remotely hint might have some performance.

In the meantime, Mazda is really leading the way with this. Particularly to be able to spare the time to bring their car out for just anyone to try out, is just amazing. Even further to have a chance to hear Jim talking about calling the race for the #40 GT Rolex RX8 at the 24 hours of Daytona, and describing pulling every trick in the book to hold off the might of TRG Porsche...I had to pinch myself a few times. That's a company that cares.

So, thank you Mazda! We'll be definitely keeping two eyes on this one.

Photo from

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My Life for a Battery

Today HP launched its new line of formerly-Palm phones and a tablet, amidst a fair amount of fanfare in San Francisco this morning. Racecarnology's labs was eagerly awaiting the news, we've been fans of Palm since we first tethered a Palm Pilot Pro to a Nokia 2190 using an Option Snap-on adapter and used that rig to kick off a build back at work from the seat of a parked 1999 M Roadster.

While their connected organizer did a lot of connecting and organizing, it of course fell to the wayside with the Smartphone Revolution where Palm finally responded with it's Pre phones running WebOS. Which, due to a number of fatal flaws weren't able to save Palm's sovereignty and were absorbed by HP. This morning's event is the culmination of the many fantastic innovations that Palm were able to bring about, backed by the piles of cash that HP has to pour into them.

By Racecarnology's estimation, original Pre and Pixi were fantastic overall including:

- Incredible WebOS UI and integration
- Nifty sleek design
- Better than average camera on the Pre

But, as it happens, a few fatal flaws:

- Poor ability to ship and update the device on a timely schedule and get to new carriers
- Bizarre Marketing incapable of communicating WebOS's awesomeness to the common man
- Battery life

Which brings us to the new devices. Have HP rectified all the Palm-bound shortcomings? The ship dates announced look slightly long, likely a new iProduct or two will be announced before HP's new gizmos hit the street. But HP has the money to make it happen. So 'Maybe' for that one. HP's marketing efforts have been at least non-offensive in the past, and I take it as a success story that Racecarnology's labs have two HP laptops and an HP printer, so we'll admit they're doing something right there.

But here's the rub - Engadget's fine coverage of the event listed a spec comparison between the Pre 2 and Pre 3 that showed awesome bumps across the board...except for a 1,230mAh battery. A 1.4GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon is just great, but how long will this phone last with just slightly less power than a Nokia X6? Or just sightly more power than an HTC Aria?

The Veer looked particularly interesting too - we tend to gravitate to a smaller phone, helpful to take long while training for those long hot hours in a race car. But perplexing in the extreme - a non-removable 910mAh battery. WTF.

Reading that number, we flashed back to the days of yore when a just nine hundred and ten little milliamp hours could last a full work day and night. And it dawned - the Sony Ericsson K850i - a beloved gadget, that we used constantly, took great pictures with its Xenon 5MP shooter, we broadcast the start of the 2009 Le Mans directly from Le Sarthe over Qik, we Skyfired, we Fringed, we Google mapped, we made calls with excellent reception, we tethered over bluetooth, and we listened to MP3s with Mega Bass for hours on end, all on its tiny little BST-38 930 mAh battery.

And so, a comparison that you probably won't see anywhere else. The very latest WebOS Veer vs. the Sony Ericsson K850i:

Dimensions54.5 x 84 x 15.1mm102 x 48 x 17mm
Processor800MHz Qualcomm MSM7230200Mhz ARM926EJ-S
Display2.6-inch 400 x 3202.2-inch 240x320
Camera5 megapixel5MP, AF, Xenon/LED Flash
Storage8GB8GB via Micro SD or MSM
Cellular RadioGSM / HSPAGSM / HSPDA
Bluetooth2.1 + EDR2.0, AVCRP, A2DP
Touch to ShareYesNope
Battery Capacity910mAh non-removable930mAh removable

As always, statistics need to taken with a grain of salt. In no way are we suggesting the K850i is a match to nearly any modern OS smartphone, but given this information, how long will a Veer's battery last? Without some serious optimization, there could be netbooks out there with more talk time.

In short, we still love Palm, even now under HP's evil overlordishness. WebOS still has so much UI awesomeness about it. Their tablet looks great with WebOS, and their announced computers running WebOS ensure its innovativeness be around for some time to come. But if they want to sell a phone, they're going to need some near-magical levels of power optimization, pave every road with Touchstone chargers, or they're just plain going to need some bigger batteries.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Clean Sheet of Paper

Racecar Engineering last night published a brief article on the all-new John Player Specialesque Renault Lotus-ish F1 R31's exhaust treatment. Started last May from a clean sheet of paper, the car was designed by engineers with free reign to do something drastically different in the name of an advantage. Renault Technical Director James Allison said, "I believe we have chosen a direction which is on the brave end of brave."

It looks like, quite possibly, Renault been quite brave indeed.

Blown rear diffusers or rear wings have been on and off F1 cars for several years, the simple view is that you point the exhaust pipe of the engine at a sensitive areo area of the car, either to increase airflow in one area or to decrease airflow in another, and one supercomputer of advanced math later, you have increased downforce when you need it...just enough to make that difference in a highly completive race series.

We can't easily recall other areas of a race car getting the exhaust-blown treatment, but pictures seem to indicate the RB31's exhausts actually travel forward and exit toward the front of the sidepod, perhaps enabling better airflow over the floor right around the midsection of the car. This is particularly neat, because, should it actually work, they'd be getting additional downforce around the midsection of the car, which should give even more flexibility than just more downforce at the rear as with the 2010 cars using that setup. Which could lead to a significant advantage.

However, some serious challenges with heat come to mind - not only with running the exhaust pipe forward near the driver, but KERS returns to F1 this year, and that means another component in the car that needs extra cooling. And the tradeoff between cooling and areo efficiency is a very tight balance as well.

So will this thing work?

I'm reminded of another clean sheet of paper design released in June 2007 by a small computer company that had just 5% share of its market at the time. The main press thought they just might be on to something with their radical approach...some neat new features but glaringly lacking in others. Brave engineers too, and things have worked out quite well for them.

The Renault R31 needs to be ready to race March 11th. I have a feeling we'll know pretty quickly thereafter if the old John Player slogan 'Something Very Special' ends up referring to the R31's pace, or its ability to light up and burn at one end.