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Little Red Raikkon Hood? (Part 1)

2006-02-02 11:03

How many times with Fernando Alonso taste the champers in 2006?

Egmont Sippel

Who knows? Here we are, at the start of another F1 season, and the only thing piling up quicker than expectation and tension is uncertainty.

In more stable times, the predominant inter-season question for the upcoming year would have been if Ferrari could stage a comeback after such a dismal display in the previous outing?

Instead, in 2006 - with a raft of new technical and sporting regulations, spanning the spectrum from strict power plant prescriptives to a new qualifying format to an old tyre formula - F1 is riddled with so many unknowns that Ferrari's resurrection is but one of several serious issues on the table.

And, incidentally, also the easiest one to answer: Yes, Maranello will be back.

The reasons are aplenty:

  • Ferrari's really great cars of recent times seem to have been produced in a bi - annual cycle: 2002, 2004, 2006 . . .
  • Their V8 will be strong and reliable. In Paolo Martinelli, Gilles Simon and Jean - Jacques His the Scuderia boasts the best engine engineers in the world.

Renault and Honda might be close, and at the best of times even slightly better - and BMW and Toyota will come on strong - but in a season long war the combined efforts of the three maestros mentioned could well provide the edge.

  • Designer-in-chief Aldo Costa has had his baptism of fire with the F2005. The 248 F1 will be a second bite at the cherry.

Once it became clear, further more, that the F2005 could not make the grade - fairly early on in 2005 already - Maranello would have gained a long lead time in research and development for the 248 F1.

In order to recapture past glories, we can also assume that they would have leaned on guru Rory Byrne's ?supervisory' hand a lot heavier than they did with the F2005.

  • The rest of the team - and structures - were basically carried over, not only from last year, but from Jean Todt's ruthless, albeit efficient and effective, management stretching back to the mid - 90s.

Stability is a key word in F1, and nobody's got it like Ferrari has.

  • Schumacher is still driving the car, and that's a formidable plus.

Ho, hum, here we go again...

  • Most importantly though, tyre regulations have been changed back to a format that suits Ferrari's supplier. Bridgestone excels at producing softer - and therefore stickier - rubber, running at higher temperatures.

However, with shorter stints, wear will not be a problem (unless Europe experiences an extremely hot summer, like 2003's). Graining, on the other hand, will be an issue - which, traditionally, has been Michelin's Achilles Heel.

The added bonus for Maranello is that Williams and Toyota will help to develop Bridgestone rubber in 2006.

The counter-balance comes in the shape of having lost:

  1. Rubens Barrichello, whose set - up acumen often guided the team to optimum solutions; and
  2. Nicholas Tombazis, who defected to McLaren prior to aero development on the F2005 - which showed on the track.

Balance the positives and negatives though, and it seems that a Ferrari resurrection is firmly on the cards.

Much more pertinent in this regard is a kind of reverse question: Will McLaren experience a Ferrari - like slump in 2006?

With a strong base to build from, the MP4-21's aero performance and balance should be good; the car is indeed fantastically sculptured.

McLaren's weak link, however, has consistently been its Merc power plant - and early indications are that 2006 might yield more of the same. Rumours are that the Benz V8 just cannot hit 19 000 rpm without shattering its pistons.

Williams' Cosworth V8, on the other hand, is reputed to turn at more than 19 500 revs with relative ease.

Then again, Benz's troubles (if true), are not that surprising, are they - especially now that Mario Ilien has left to form Ilmor, a new concern not related to the old Ilmor Engineering, which was bought out by Benz and is now operating as Mercedes - Benz High Performance Engines Ltd.

Brain drain

The latter, though, was brain drained last year when Ilmor took 56 top engineers with him to his new concern, which will provide power to all sorts of machinery in a diversity of racing leagues, Nascar and MotoGP among them.

Now, diversification is the arch enemy of F1.

In the past, McLaren has lost focus - and performance - at the very moment Ron Dennis has cast his ambitious eye on the possibilities of a McLaren F1 Road Car, a Mercedes-Benz SLR or an attempt at the world land speed record.

The SLR project was announced in the middle of 1999, at Silverstone, with McLaren already well on the way to both titles (especially after Schumacher's faux pas).

Was it any coincidence, then, that they promptly lost the selfsame titles in 2000, never to have regained even one of them yet - although they should have retained the driver's in 2000, had Merc's V10 not destroyed Hakkinen's chances at Indy, after having failed him earlier in the season as well?

Ditto in 2003, when Kimi should have been world champion. And ditto last year, when Ilmor was busy with all his devious escape plans to leave Merc in the lurch.

So, the Benz engine didn't get the attention it deserved.

Too late

This year it might - Stuttgart will frantically throw engineers at the project - but their input and the difference it makes might be too late for a strong championship challenge.

Which, in turn, might unleash a chain reaction, for it's difficult to see how the Flying Finn will keep his frustrations in check if Benz power robs him of what would have been a third driver's title - especially on top of ace designer Adrian Newey's departure from Woking, with rumours of aerodynamicists Peter Prodromou and Nicolas Tombazis about to follow Newey's example.

Will Kimi stand to attention this year?

With Vodafone on board as a long-term sponsor, and with McLaren's brand- new Paragon Headquarters posing as a paradigm of the modern, state-of-the-art F1 facility, Ron Dennis' team might well be headed for a sustained period of dominance in the not too distant future.

And that could mean the Kimster might in the long run want to stay for the same reasons that attracted Alonso: McLaren's potential and Ron's vision - or as Marlon Brando (as Kurtz, in Apocalypse Now) might have whispered, in husky tones: The promise . . . the promise . . .

But that promise has been in the making for a long time now.

Future options

And with Newey gone, one gets the feeling that the Kimster will stay hooded for a while yet, assessing his future options, based primarily on the MP4-21's character and performance, which will in turn hinge on Brixworth's V10.

By mid-year then (or perhaps even earlier) it will all boil down to the following: Will the best driver in the world be able to muster enough belief in Mercedes-Benz?

Or not?

It is strange, but draw up an index of the best F1 engine builders in the world and the most glamorous and revered motoring brand of all features almost right at the bottom of such a list.

It's up to Merc then, to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Otherwise Uncle Ron might not have to choose between Kimi and Juan. One of them, or even both, might be off in any case.

Where to, and for whatever other reasons, will be discussed in the next installment of "At Full Chat", whereafter we will just about be ready to give an assessment of the year ahead.

See ya'.


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