All entries for October 2006

October 31, 2006


Writing about web page

It’s not been a good couple of days for petrolheads. In the last 48 hours, we’ve had the above from the Transport Select Committee calling for more speed cameras and traffic police, the arrest of Nick Freeman (which I’ve already covered) and rumours of ill-directed government plans to price us off the roads.

Dealing with the linked article first, the Transport Select Committee are actually talking some sense. One of their statements for example, that technology must support road police officers, not replace them, I wholeheartedly agree with. Technology can be made as fancy as you like, but it lacks the ability to judge circumstances; it will only measure something against a fixed criteria and implement fixed actions accordingly. To then contradict themselves quite brilliantly, they call for yet more speed cameras. To which I shrug. I’m afraid motorists are just going to have to accept that we aren’t going to win this one – consider it an extra tax on you all. If you want to keep your licences, instead of giving the money to the government in fines I suggest you all go and get a subscription to a GPS based speed camera alert system. I run a Snooper S6-R myself, they’re perfectly legal and invaluable in alerting you when you’re paying attention to the road instead of concentrating solely on your speedo and the hedges in the road. Units cost from a couple of hundred pounds and subscriptions are reasonable; mine costs me £60 a year and for that I get peace of mind that I’m not going to get points and also that my insurance will go on a downward rather than upward trend. As to more police officers on the roads, well I’ve noticed an upward trend in police on the roads, especially on motorways. Fair enough I say – it’s where most of the traffic is and it’s where people generally drive badly and dangerously the most. Motorways aren’t fun unless you have relatively low volumes of traffic and get up to Autobahn speeds, conditions that rarely happen in the UK anyway. I’ve given up on trying to win on motorways for these reasons – much more fun to take the deserted backroads where you never see a cop. Of course, police rarely stop you for driving badly (i.e. weaving about, tailgating), so it would be good if the TSC would make some noises about increasing police crackdowns on bad driving period rather than concentrating on the notion that speed is the sole killer on our roads. And an increased number of police checks on checking drivers for being intoxicated on alcohol or worse is also a good thing. So the TSC are slightly misguided perhaps, but nonetheless making at least not totally discouraging noises.

So what about the environmentalist racket? Well schemes being mooted to save the planet include road charging per mile (which I disagree with on principle, since I don’t want the police to have a tracker on my car. It’s not like they’ll ever use it to find my car if it’s nicked anyway), increasing road tax, disproportionately for better cars, and whacking on fuel duty. Now of the three, the only one that makes sense is fuel duty, a move which I would support (in moderation). Road tax in itself is an annual payment that has naff all to do with how much carbon you emit. For example, people I know who run classic cars. Now, these have large, inefficient engines, but are only driven maybe a couple of thousand miles a year. 1,000 miles at 20MPG is equivalent to 0.53 tonnes of carbon (using, yet a family hatchback averaging 40MPG doing 12,000 miles a year is equivalent to 3.19 tonnes of carbon – 6 times as much. So why does the person who releases a sixth of the carbon have to pay much, much more road tax? (We’re talking about massive hikes for road tax here, not just the odd £50 on Range Rovers like has been implemented thus far). It’s ridiculous. The only fair way is to whack it on fuel and leave it at that. How much will this cost? Well again referring to carbon clear, 1 tonne of carbon (released by about 425 litres of petrol) costs £9 to offset (i.e. neutralise). So at current rates for carbon offset costs, we should have to pay a whopping 2.11p a litre extra on our petrol to completely neutralise the effects of us driving. I think I can cope with that. Remember that figure when you see prices going up by 50p a litre in the name of saving the environment.

Police arrest Freeman

Writing about web page

I’m going to be following this case with interest. For those of you who don’t know who Nick Freeman is, he’s a top lawyer who makes a hell of a lot of money out of representing motorists in court, usually defending them successfully. He’s about the only lawyer I’ve heard of who I like. He was arrested yesterday morning and released late last night following raids on his office by police requested by Gwent police force. Currenty there’s no information on the charges other than that they relate to suspicion of perverting the course of justice. It will be very interesting to see if there’s any truth in these allegations, or if (as I suspect) it’s a PR stunt by the police. I don’t know if the allegations are true (I don’t even know what they are!) but Freeman has always struck me as a relatively stragiht lawyer who happens to be blessed with the gift of being much smarter than the prosecution. As he’s said before, if the prosecution have done their job properly and the evidence is sound, then he has no case and he loses (like he did with Paris Hilton recently). I suspect “perverting the course of justice” translates to “showing up the evidence and prosecution for being sloppy”, which causes no end of annoyance to road safey campaigners, which is probably the real reason behind his arrest. But as I say, no hard facts yet, so it’s purely speculation on my part.

October 21, 2006

Tales from the wheel

So, two weeks and 1,600 miles (and far too much petrol) into new car ownership and I feel it’s time to report back on how I’m getting along with my new love interest – the Focus ST (or ASBO if you’re a Top Gear viewer).

Overall, it’s an awesome car. I’m very happy with my decision to go for it, and picking up a shiny new car from a dealer with 16 miles on the clock is a great feeling. I can see why so many people will never buy anything other than new, although personally I’d be happy to go back to second hand buying. For this car though, since the model is so new and since I could get decent discount, I went for it new anyway. It’s not perfect, but I’m so delighted with it that I’m willing to forgive it’s imperfections. Rather than continue in this style though, the easiest way for me to get across what I think about it is just to list the things that stand out that I do and don’t like (I’m an engineer, not a motoring journalist!)

I don’t think I can start anywhere else but the engine. Those in the know will be aware of the ST’s 2522cc 5 cylinder turbo unit, which is every bit as great as you think it is. At low revs, it has a deep rumble and enough torque to tow a battleship. A serious prod at the throttle has the effect of dragging any object on the horizon towards the car at a fair old lick in no time. I happen to think it sounds a little like a Viper, since the firing frequencies associated with the 5 cylinder are much the same as the V10, and it’s much more that sort of deep noted engine than a wailing sports engine like you might imagine. Furthermore, it has an appreciable amount of turbo whistle, which is a good thing, and a short burst of throttle and then a sudden lift-off will produce a satisfying de-spooling noise from the turbo department. It also overfuels very nicely on the overrun, with anything from a distant snuffle and boom to some very audible pops and bangs, which (if you’re about 9 years old mentally like me) makes imagining that you’re in a full on Focus WRC charging down a rally circuit very entertaining. Another nice touch with the ST is that they’ve reduced the amount of sound deadening to the engine department, which means you can really hear it in the cabin (with the windows up). Only three things bug me about the engine – and for me, that’s very good going. One of them (which is only very minor) is the rather poor fuel consumption – I’ve been averaging less than 24 MPG so far. I know that it’s new and I know that I’m not exactly gentle on the loud pedal, but even for a performance hatch that’s not great. Also, I don’t think the induction system is actually loud enough. The lack of sound deadening compensates well for this to make you think you’re in a loud car, but with the windows down the resulting buffeting and Helmholtz resonance actually shows it up for being quite a muted unit from the outside. More noise please Ford. Lastly, the engineers have made a decided push for low down torque, which is great. However, this means that they’ve fitted a 12 blade turbine to the exhaust (for comparison, the VXR Astra has a 9 blade turbine) to improve spooling. This works well for low down boost (it produces serious boost at little above idle if you open the taps) and results in little lag, but seriously limits the top-end power. Therefore, the engine feels restricted in the upper rev reaches as the torque falls away, leaving much more of a constant, brutal, crushing acceleration than something that feels very zippy and sport-like. I’m aiming to rectify this with a bluefin re-map of the ECU, and possibly some other goodies like a beefier intercooler, revised induction system and free-flow catalyst, but nevertheless it’s slightly irritating.

The ESP is a handy system that I usually leave on, just in case one day I get a little over-zealous and then have to slam on the anchors out of a corner whilst enjoying myself down a country B road. However, for really enjoying a drive, especially in wet conditions, it’s too intrusive. I’m sure this could have been worked on a little more; when the system cuts in (and it does, and quite early too) you really know about it. It is, however, very easy to turn off, and turn completely off at that – none of this VAG “remain in the background” rubbish. It even displays a constant scary “ESP OFF” and a yellow light instead of the trip computer just in case you forgot. Fortunately, the traction is excellent, meaning the system isn’t really needed most of the time. Even completely off, you can floor it at 45/50 in second round a quick corner and barely a chirrup comes from the inside wheel as it grips and goes. I think with the aforementioned mods this may change slightly, but even so the chassis feels like it can handle a lot more than the current power output.

The handling again I can’t fault – it’s perfectly balanced. Depending upon how much you provoke it, when you do eventually run out of grip (and I’ve barely managed to do so yet) the front will gently start to push wide, or the tail will step out slightly if you lift off too harshly. The steering at first I thought to be too light, and was irritated to find it was already in “sport” – the hardest of the three settings on the electro-hydraulic system. However, at speed it weights up well, and although it’s still too light for my tastes (I found the weighting on the Murcielago about right, to give some idea of where my tastes lie) it is very communicative and you know exactly what everything is up to.

The brakes are truly terrifyingly effective – I was toying with it after I’d bedded them in, and decided to see if I could brake quite late for the turning into our road (after checking nothing was around yadda yadda). After all, you need to know what the car’s capable of. I was quite surprised to find my car lose 30 mph in 10 feet, whilst physics and my body had other ideas, and disagreed somewhat with the seatbelt. I’ve learnt from that to treat 320mm front discs with a little respect, and recognise that unlike on the Escort I probably won’t be using anything like their full potential in road driving very often.

The ride I was expecting to be pretty firm, and it is. Although the engine gives the car almost a laid back feel in some ways, the suspension points very strongly to it’s true calling as a performance tool. It crashes into bumps in the road very firmly and noisily at times – I actually thought I had hit some debris down one back road the thump was so severe. But hey, I know you can’t have it all ways – if I wanted a motorway cruiser I’d have bought a second hand XJ. The suspension is firm for a reason (see the handling paragraph above), and whilst a more comfortable ride would be nice I’m happy with the trade-off.

The cabin is a very nice place to sit. The stereo looks cool, has an iPod connector and is seriously punchy if you want to crank up the volume (although I haven’t really had it on much…). I also love the three dials in the centre of the dash for turbo boost, oil pressure and oil temperature. These are pretty handy, the oil temp and water temp gauges especially giving me a good indication of when I am safe to start using more than a smidge of throttle once the engine is warm. Sadly this takes about 4 miles of country roads from my house, as low throttle openings mean the engine takes longer to warm… Dammit! Worthy of singling out for special praise are the seats, which are exceedingly comfortable even on long motorway trips, yet at the same time are very supportive through the bends. They also look the part, finished with highlights to match the bodywork. Despite being a three door, access to the back is pretty good – I’ve given a lift to two elderly relatives in the past couple of weeks, neither of whom had a great deal of trouble getting into the back. The doors though are massive, and swing out a long way before you can get out comfortably – methinks I’m going to have to be careful with near walls and whatnot to avoid damaging the excellent paintwork. The boot is also a decent size – I took some relatives to the airport and all their stuff fitted in the back easily.

So there we go – the new Focus ST. In my opinion, the best realistic car on sale today. It’s no wonder the watiing list is currently about 6 months long!

October 09, 2006


Right now, I was planning to have been blogging about the ST, which arrived on Saturday. I’ve done nearly 500 miles in it so far (at a rather impressive average of 22.9 mpg and some miles an hour) and it’s a dream. But that’s not the point of this post. Co-inciding with one of the best things that has ever happened to me this weekend, is almost certainly the worst. As some of you may know, my Grandad’s been battling cancer for the last year and a half, and I’m sorry to say that last night he lost the fight.

For those of you who never met him, my grandad was the most wonderful person you could ever hope to come across. He would help anyone, and I have never in the 22 years that I’ve had the priveledge to know him heard anyone say anything bad of him. He was always content, looked on the bright side of everything that happened in his life, and really appreciated what he had. He had many talents, perhaps his biggest that I knew of was getting into mischief by having some sort of amusing calamity whenever he was doing anything. Whenever I was down, a few words from him, usually a simple “Don’t worry about it, we’ll sort it out” somehow offered more reassurance than anything else I’ve ever encountered. He taught me most of what I know, first giving me a hammer pretty much before I could walk. I never knew him to let me down. He was my biggest supporter, my mentor, relative, and most importantly of all he was my closest friend. I just wanted to share how grateful I am for him to have been such a big part of my life.

October 05, 2006

Conference round–up

Well another year of party conferences has passed, and to be honest I’ve been too busy with work to pay as much attention as I’d like to the happenings. Rather predictably, it’s the negatives that grabbed the biggest headlines on all sides; the biggest Conservative story being Boris Johnson saying he didn’t like Jamie Oliver – wow big scoop guys. At least Cameron made it clear that unlike some other parties around, he doesn’t have a problem with members voicing their own thoughts and opinions even if they aren’t in line with his…

I will concede though, that our critics do have a point when they point to Cameron’s unclear message and lack of policy. I know we have big policy reviews set to report next year, and we will form policies based on those recommendations, but for the meanwhile the lack of real substance is wearing. As to is his focus – he chose to make the NHS his big issue during his conference speeches this week, whereas previously my money would have been on him banging on more about green issues. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of what he says makes a lot of sense and it’s refreshing to hear a leader speak about things that less traditionally centre-right voters will identify with, even if it is to the discomfort of traditional centre-rightists such as myself. At least it brings us hope of moving things in the right direction. But even I struggle to stomache all his spiel – yes it’s a great idea to do all these things, but isn’t that obvious? Far more important than what you want to do is how you intend to do it (and then if it actually works); given that he’s shed little light on that as yet it does try your patience.

Many of Cameron’s critics level the accusation that he’s too like Blair, and I can see their point. Blair dragged a left-leaning party right, Cameron is dragging a right-leaning party left, largely by much the same methods. I hope he turns out to be able to tell the truth and have a little more humility though, and perhaps actually finds some substance. Maybe the policy review will bring the latter. Maybe I’m being hopelessly optimistic on all points, but I can dream. As to the actual critics, well given that I reckon at least half of them are the same people who have voted Blair to all three terms I don’t see what cause they have to complain, as a group that has spent the last three terms fighting the bloke surely we have more cause for complaint than they do.

All in all though, our conference I think was a successful one, and from what I’ve seen of it I’d definitely consider trying to go to the next one. Most depressing news that actually came out of the conference though, William Hague ruled out a return to leadership. My hopes for the future are ruined :-(

October 2006

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