2015 Indianapolis 500

99th Indy Logo_cr

I was raised on the Indianapolis 500.  When I was a wee lad, my family would journey to my great aunt’s summer house in northern PA for every Memorial Day weekend.  Sunday morning, we would wake, have breakfast, seed the vegetable garden, and then gather around an ancient box of glowing cathode ray tubes for the race.  Even as a frenetic child on his summer vacation, I was transfixed.  For those hours, I would just gape at the race in awe.  The cars were so conspicuously fragile, the speeds and danger so obviously great, the crowd and the track so massively huge.  I knew nothing else about the sport save that once a year, they did THIS, and to me, that was enough.

A succession of Mears and Unser victories marked those days for me, with a couple interjections from a man named Fittipaldi.  Years later, I confessed to my wife that the only reason it took me so long to propose to her was that I needed to pay off the new wheels I’d put on my car—17” Fittipaldi Flames—before I could buy her a ring.  (She’s since forgiven me.  Just ask her about it.)

As I grew up and the pace of life increased, I still tried to keep up with the happenings at the 500.  I remember the changing of the guard taking place in the early 2000’s, as the older Indy vets gracefully gave way to a younger generation of stars: the made-for-TV smile of the fence-climbing Helio Castroneves; the entitled, yet fiery and determined Marco Andretti; fan favorite and Vin Diesel lookalike Tony Kanaan; the fast, witty, and wily longhaired Brit Dan Wheldon; and the Italian-name/Italian-face guy that somehow spoke in Scottish brogue: Dario Franchitti.

I was living in Las Vegas in October of 2011, but I wasn’t at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when we lost Wheldon—instead, my wife and boys and I were at Leguna Seca for Rennsport Reunion IV.  Still, I remember the moment atop that glorious hill at that glorious track when a voice came across the PA system and announced the news.  I remember feeling a deathly chill and audibly gasping, “What???”  My next coherent thought was of Dan’s pretty wife and young boys—I remembered seeing them, just a few months before, reacting joyously after Wheldon swept past the still-rolling wreckage of JR Hildebrand’s car to take the lead just before crossing the bricks for the win at the 500.

That crazy finish was made even crazier by the fact that Wheldon didn’t even have a ride for the remainder of the 2011 IndyCar Series season.  Bryan Herta’s racing team didn’t have deep pockets and had thrown together a car and a driver just for the 500.  As a result, Wheldon logged the 500 win, then went right back to doing race commentary on the SPEED channel.  More important was the work he was doing as a driver-consultant for chassis-maker Dallara, who was in the midst of producing an all-new chassis for the IndyCar series, set to debut in the 2012 season.  The chassis was later named “DW12” in Wheldon’s honor, and rightfully so.  With Dan’s help, Dallara had done a spectacular job and ushered in a new and fantastic era in IndyCar.

The new chassis created such an aerodynamic void behind it at high speed that leaders at Indy were now completely unable to hold the lead for long.  Challengers could lurk in the low-drag wake behind the leader, and then ‘slingshot’ past when exiting a turn onto the long straights at Indianapolis.  The 2012 500 saw an all-time record 34 lead changes, and a race that in past days had been at times relatively placid at the front suddenly became a never-look-away, white-knuckle rivet-fest for all 500 miles.  That 2012 race wasn’t decided until Takuma Sato spun out from under Dario Franchitti in turn one of lap 200.  The 2013 race finally placed Tony Kanaan atop the podium.  And the 2014 race gave us an American winner for the first time in 8 years: Ryan Hunter-Reay, on the back of his almost unbelievably ballsy, nearly-into-the-grass, lap-197 pass.

Raised on Indy and now hopelessly addicted to Indy—and finally living within a day’s drive of Indy—I   could not pass up the 99th running of the race.  I bought tickets and convinced friends and family from four different states to come join me.  We drove into town under a very light rain and found a $10 parking spot on a Georgetown Road front lawn.  The rain gave way to sunshine as we walked the remaining distance to the track entrance.  Along with lots of other people.

So…many…other…people.  I’ve been to professional racing events before, but 20,000 or 30,000 people at Mid-Ohio or Leguna Seca is not remotely in the same league as a quarter-million folks at Indy.  Heck, a top-attended pro or college football game doesn’t even merit HALF as many attendees as the 500.  The scale of this event is truly enormous, epic, massive, incredible—something words on a page can’t describe.

We meandered through the IndyCar Fan Village, checked out the 2016 Camaro (and a unicorn 3-pedal SS) that Chevrolet had on display, and eyed the bright-green Honda Civic Type R concept.  For a few moments, I stood close enough to Hunter-Reay’s 2014 winning car to bask in its victorious yellow aura.  Then we strolled back to our seats for the traditional pre-race pageantry, so important at the 500.

My favorite moment of these festivities was during the driver introductions, where the assembled multitudes loudly—and rightfully—booed lead IndyCar Series d-bag Will Power.  I knew right then that I was among good folk!  Speaking of good folk, Jim Nabors has stepped aside as official “Back Home Again In Indiana” singer, and instead Indiana University alums Straight No Chaser did an excellent job in his place.  Jordan Sparks gave a solid national anthem (though either she finished early, or the A-10 flyover came in late—so hard to get that timing just right).  Mari Hulman George, as she has done for as long as I remember, gave the ‘start engines’ command, albeit this time with help from one of her daughters.  And then the Corvette pace car ducked into the pits, the green flag dropped, the engines roared, and…Sato crashed.  A glorious early summer day at the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

I won’t bore you with an amateur recounting of all 500 miles, but the best radio line of the day was from Turn 3 man Jake Query, who summarized the Chevrolet-engine dominance with this clever quip: “The Victory Banquet may be the weekend’s formal affair, but a bowtie is required attire for this race!”  For me, the best result of the day was seeing low-key Ganassi man Charlie Kimball put together a brilliant drive, starting 14th on the grid but finishing on the podium in 3rd.  Charlie is now batting a thousand when it comes to achieving a podium finish at IndyCar races that I’ve attended (Mid-Ohio 2013, 1st place).

Next year will, of course, be the 100th running.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be showing off a host of upgrades, Helio will still be looking for his fourth win, Marco will still be trying to break the Andretti Curse, Tony will still be playing up his ‘fan favorite’ status, and Sato will surely crash again.  I’ve already got my tickets, and as sixty-five percent of the US population lives within a day’s drive of Indianapolis—no excuses, I’ll see you there.

Montoya Wins Indy 2015 - Fist Pump

Wish I Could Migrate With the Wildebeests

There’s a problem in the automotive world, and it’s not that automakers are forsaking the enthusiast driver.  In fact, one could argue that now is as good a time as any to be an enthusiast—at least on paper.

The problem is that the enthusiast options exist— but ONLY on paper, and not in tangible, glistening candy apple red reality.  Dealers don’t stock enthusiast-appeal specs and trims, because in order to make money, dealers have to appeal to the mass market and be able to close a needy, yet skittish customer by sending them home in a new car TODAY.  That means filling their lot with boring, interchangeable, beige/white/silver/grey-on-black, automatic transmission, all-wheel drive models with DVD players and oversized twenty-two-inch rims wrapped in compromised all-season tires.

If an enthusiast is interested in something better, something interesting, something like, say—an Ecoboost Mustang coupe with stick, performance pack, and non-black interior.   Or a 6-cylinder front-wheel-drive Chrysler 200 with a non-black interior, or a 1.4T Jeep Renegade with steelies, 4×4, and stick, or an absolute base-model Fiat 500X 1.4T with stick and front-drive…I could go on, but unless they’re lucky, the enthusiast will not be able to test-drive any of these examples (all of which, according to automaker websites, are obtainable).

Who is going to make the $50k leap on buying a stick Chevy SS when they’ve never had a chance to drive one?  What about the $40k leap on a BMW 228i coupe with stick (late edit: most recent R&T says BMW “lost their way” with the 228i—sounds like it’s not even an option worth considering anyway)?  The point is, it’s a tough sell to get a consumer to throw all that cash at something they can’t see or touch before they’re stuck with it.

This creates a cyclical effect, where STEP 1) makers produce a performance trim level/option package, STEP 2) dealers don’t buy it because it doesn’t suit the mainstream, STEP 3) enthusiast customers can’t see it and touch it so they don’t buy it, STEP 4) the maker stops building it, and then STEP 5) enthusiast consumers cry out that the maker doesn’t build any exciting cars.

In my mind, this cycle is what led Toyota to become the world’s top-selling automaker—after making such gems as the 2000GT and the Supra, the brand eventually shed all pretense of building anything interesting or innovative and instead focused on pushing as many keyfobs for staid, beige vehicles across dealer desks as possible.  Well, what’s wrong with that, you ask?

I’ll tell you.  Part of building and selling cars is selling the consumer on a dream about getting something—not just anything, but a great BIG something that is significantly better than what that consumer has now.  Lately, Toyota is participating in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, collaborating with Subaru on the FRS/BRZ, whispering rumors to the press about a liaison with BMW, and overall trying desperately to inject themselves with an exciting viability.  Why are they doing this?  Because they realized that if they stopped trying to excite, and innovate, and push the envelope, and showcase the dream of better-ness (all things they essentially HAD stopped doing for a while in the mid-to-late 2000’s), eventually their engineering would become dull and passé.  All of those sales numbers they took for granted were suddenly in danger of disappearing because their products were teetering on the precipice between bland and inoffensive to downright non-competitive.  If that happened, they would no longer able to offer something any better than what the consumer already owned, and even their most shameless sycophants would begin to question them.  This very thing happened recently to Honda with the 2012 Civic—a great case in point, and perhaps another indicator that helped spur Toyota to act.

Enthusiast consumers are stuck with this vicious cycle, though, for two reasons.  First is the flawed, mass perception about car-buying—that it must be as fast a process as possible.  This forces a dealer to stock exactly what the lowest common denominator would want to act on and go home with that same day.  This is a doubly destructive practice, as it often saddles that customer with something other than exactly what they want, which leads to regret or anger about the purchase, which leads to a widespread culture of consumer distrust regarding dealers.  The second reason is the politically connected National Auto Dealers Association, which ironically lobbies lawmakers to pass legislation that maintains and reinforces this flawed status quo.  A prime example is NADA’s recent effort to shut down Tesla’s direct-sales model.  I do not mean to suggest that dealers are all evil money-grubbing middlemen, but rather that their incentives are flawed.  The clever manufacturer would provide some additional incentive for dealers to push enthusiast models.  After all, in the long run, the enthusiast models (and their owners) are what burnish the brand image.

Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.  So, sadly, like Calvin says, “Life is full of precluded possibilities.”  The wildebeests might be out there, but they might as well be in Africa as close as most enthusiasts will get to them.




Furious Seven


I’ve been a fan of the Fast & Furious movie franchise since day one.  I imagine that it’s easy to deride these films if you, uh, hate fun.  Or if you’ve never watched them because you consider yourself above such base entertainment.  Or whatever your problem might be.  But for those of us that love them (and judging by the worldwide gross for the franchise to date—$3.2B—there are a lot of us), we have our reasons.  Perhaps the most commonly stated is that we can identify on a personal level with one of the characters, and in these films, the characters matter.  Yes, there are a lot of action sequences, but in the end it’s the characters’ experiences and relationships that make you care about the films—not the size and number of explosions.

My guy is—well, was—Paul Walker’s character, Brian O’Conner.  Brian was, of course, central to the franchise, and now that he’s gone, I’m not sure how the movies will work, or honestly if they will merit my movie-going dollars anymore.  My association with Brian certainly isn’t physical—I don’t pretend I’ve got Paul’s looks—but I feel like my professional career has ebbed and flowed in metaphorical harmony with his.

Brian and I got our starts at right around the same time—he was a brash, young undercover LAPD cop, and I was a brash, young lieutenant in pilot training.  When he had to choose between his job and his personal loyalties, he chose his personal loyalties (to Dom and Mia).  I did too, choosing family over work when presented with similar divergent roads in the wood.

As a result of that decision, both Brian and I had to move around a bit, take some risks, and scrape for a living here and there.  And while we didn’t often doubt ourselves, it only slowly became clear as time went on that we had made the right call.  After a while, it dawned on Brian that he was the good guy he’d set out to be, even if he’d had to make some hard choices.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have been personally and professionally vindicated with regard to my tough calls as well.

By Fast Five, Brian’s no longer the kid shaking with adrenaline after a single straight-line drag race—he’s the stone-cold pro who can handle any action sequence with veteran aplomb.  He’s also grown personally.  He’s in a serious, committed relationship with Mia.  He’s got people (Dom, Roman, Tej, and the rest of the crew) who depend on him and have expectations of him.  Through movies Six and Seven, the demands on Brian continue to increase, but he just keeps on delivering. He’s in the groove.  I’m happy to be able to say that I am too.

Because of these parallel arcs, it somehow hurt in a very personal way when Paul died.  And that obviously was true for far more people than just me.  We would no longer be able to go to the theater and check in on our buddy Brian—to see how he was handling the transition we were all sharing, from young, risk-taking adrenaline junkie to mature, dependable family man.  So sure, we would miss him.

What really drove home the sense of loss, though, was that everything we liked about mythical Brian seemed to be magnified in all the stories that emerged about real-world Paul after his death.  So often, it’s ‘don’t meet your heroes,’ but both Brian AND Paul were cool, good-looking guys that liked cars and did nice things for people.  And if they were like that, and we were like them, then, hey, we must be alright too.  Without them around, we lose that reassurance.  And no matter how far-fetched or small a reassurance it is, it’s gone now, and there’s a void where it used to be.

As silly as Furious Seven can get (and it gets pretty silly at some points), there’s a part at the end when the silliness goes away, and things get very real.  It’s when the cast gives Brian/Paul a sendoff.  It’s set to a beautiful song, with beautiful scenery, and if you don’t tear up a bit watching it, you probably need to get your soul checked.  It ends with two simple words: “For Paul.”

It reminded me of something that happened to me not too long ago, but well before the Furious Seven release.  I was on the way to a Porsche Club meeting in my 996.  The sun was setting, the sky was tinged with gold, and the traffic was light.  As I rolled up to a red light, alone in my lane, I observed in the also otherwise-empty lane to my left a red, late 90’s (2G) Mitsubishi Eclipse GS-T coupe.  Except for color, it was the same as the first car Walker’s character piloted in the first movie—in fact, we all first met Brian O’Conner as he was attempting to ascertain his bright green 2G’s top speed in an empty stadium parking lot.

But back here in reality, the license plate of the red Eclipse read “RIP PAUL.”

There were two younger fellows in the car, t-shirts on, windows down.  I commented on the brilliance of their license plate, we exchanged some car-related compliments, and we lamented the loss of our friend.  The light changed, and we went our separate ways, both happier for our chance encounter.

A movie franchise that can give you something like that…well, it deserves your time.


The Definitive Top Ten Jeremy Clarkson Utterances

In order, starting with #10 and counting down to #1.

“This is just an ax murderer with headlights.  And I absolutely adore it.” [regarding the Mercedes C63 AMG]

“Unfortunately, on my way over here, I caught a cold.  And when I say cold, I actually mean gangrene.  Of my lungs.” [just before doing a ‘sensible’ review of the Renault Twingo]

“I’VE MENDED SOMETHING!” [upon fixing the light bulb in the rear taillight of a Porsche 944]

“I went on the internet and I found THIS…” [recurring theme during “The News”]

“Sorry, that happens sometimes when I say ‘silicon carbide.’” [His ‘crisis’ moment regarding the brakes and clutch on the Porsche Carrera GT]

“This is a hard job, and I’m not just saying this to win favor with lorry drivers, it’s a hard job.   Change gear, change gear, change gear, check your mirrors, murder a prostitute, change gear, change gear, murder, check your mirr—that’s a lot of effort in a day.” [regarding driving big rigs]

“Asking the front wheels of a car to do their normal job of steering while handling more than 170hp is like asking a man to wire a plug while juggling.  Penguins.  While making love.  To a beautiful woman while on fire, on stage…in front of the Queen.  It’s all going to go wrong.” [regarding the Ford Focus RS and front-wheel drive]

“Racing cars which have been converted for road use never really work. It’s like making a hardcore adult film, and then editing it so that it can be shown in British hotels. You just end up with a sort of half hour close up of some bloke’s sweaty face.” (makes said face) [regarding the Maserati MC12]

“The sort of person who would go away for a weekend, with his wife, to a hotel, some romantic place, and then spend the entire night flirting outrageously with the waitress.  And it’s okay because he’s got a Jaaaaaaaag.” [regarding Jaguar owners]

“You see, back in 1994, I was living in London. I got a call one evening from my mum to say that my dad was desperately ill in a hospital in Sheffield and I needed to get there as quickly as possible. I had just taken a chicken out of the oven and I thought, “Well, I’ll take that for my mum because she won’t have eaten,” ran outside, and I had a 928 on test that week. And when I arrived in Sheffield, the chicken was still warm. And my dad was still alive. In fact, he died half an hour later. And the truth is, if I hadn’t been driving a car which could zip quite happily at 170 miles per hour, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to say goodbye to my dad. So, as far as I’m concerned, the 928 is alright.” [during the Patagonia Special, regarding the Porsche 928]

And on that bombshell, it’s time to end.  Thank you very much for [reading] — good night.


If You Just Wanna Get There

It’s always fun when a stranger strikes up a car-related conversation with you.  Of course, in the Porsche, this happens fairly frequently.  But recently, while traveling for work, my rental car was a 2015 Kia Soul.  One might think, as an enthusiast, that such a car isn’t worth or wouldn’t bring rise to conversation.  The Soul interests the everyday car-buying population, however, as indicated by the young fellow who, passing by as I climbed out, mentioned to me that he was considering buying one.

I didn’t discourage him.  The fact is, if you don’t care in the least about the driving experience, the new Soul is a pretty great car, especially for the price.

The Kia Soul is in its second generation as of 2014.  The newer Soul incorporates a number of improvements over its predecessor, but the two generations are not obviously discernable from the exterior, unless one knows what to look for.  The Soul has never been, nor is it now, notable for its performance – the base engine in the new model is a 1.6L gasoline direct-inject four-cylinder making 130hp, 118lb-ft, and noise at full throttle that won’t inspire anyone to love automobiles.  In a mostly-freeway 292 miles, I observed 28.1 mpg.

The Soul tugs at the road with its front wheels, tiny 205-60/16 Kumhos scrabbling for grip.  The tires are so narrow that the traction control leaps to the driver’s defense frequently, fending off terminal understeer in the event of a mid-corner bump, stone, or patch of dirt.

The doors feel like the front cover of a three-ring binder.  They’re so thin and light that I took extra care with them in the South Dakota wind.  And the rear cargo area is laughably small, especially with the cargo cover installed (who demands those things anyway?).

I’ve stated all the negatives.  Here’s the thing: the Soul delivers the goods in every other category.

We’ll start with the sheetmetal.  The exterior design is striking—you certainly wouldn’t mistake a Soul for anything else, and Kia offers it in colors and exterior packages that take advantage of its angular, yet un-presumptuous boldness.

All of the seats sit at the perfect height off the ground to make for easy entry and exit for the average consumer.  The seat cloth in my rental-spec Soul was black, and the seats’ shape wasn’t anything special, but they were reasonably comfortable and supportive.  Importantly, the seams were stitched together with contrasting yellow thread—a small, inexpensive, but thoughtful touch that makes a shopper or owner smile.

The top of the dash is rendered in the usual black pebbled plastic, but it is not unpleasantly rigid to the touch, and it is formed around the speakers, HVAC, and gauges with enough curves and creases such that it remains inoffensive.  The two dash-top speakers are actually raised vertically above the dash surface, and are presented in a contrasting brushed-aluminum color, another smile-inducing gesture on Kia’s part.

The infotainment system is the star of the Soul’s interior.  Instead of being overly flashy or screen-intensive, it makes brilliant use of a small monochrome (red text, black background) center screen and a simple, intuitive button layout.  There are a few menus accessible via the “Tune” knob, but an owner wouldn’t make frequent use of them (the only reason I did was to reset the clock for the recent switch to daylight savings time).  The Soul also features easily accessible USB and AUX ports, satellite radio, and Bluetooth.  All of these were, again, simple and intuitive to operate, and the whole center stack is eye-pleasing with a premium feel.  The speakers weren’t praiseworthy, but Kia offers a fix for that with an optional Infinity Audio system.

The steering wheel includes tuning and cruise control functions, governed by glossy buttons that give a feeling of solidity and positive feedback.  The wheel itself looks solid and upscale.  The steering itself is light, only mildly vague, and appropriate for a vehicle of this class.

Astoundingly, despite the three-ring-binder-style doors mentioned earlier, the Soul was incredibly quiet inside as long as I wasn’t caning the engine, demanding more power.  Kia is keen to point out their improvements to the interior noise level over the first-gen Soul, and I’m certain they are not exaggerating.  The solace of the cabin was no-kidding impressive; even more so if one considers the low price.

The reason the cargo area is so small is that there’s a comfortable amount of space in the second row.  Looking back from the driver’s seat, I was surprised how far away the rear seats seemed.  I didn’t think to try putting them down, but Kia’s website shows that they split-fold 60/40 to an almost-flat position.  The Soul’s boxy shape, combined with a flat floor, promises quite a bit of interior cargo capacity (61.3 cubic feet, to be exact).

So, Kia has a winner with the Soul.  It’s racked up a fair number of awards and comparison-test wins, as well as sold very respectably.  After driving one for a week, I can understand its appeal.  If I were the editor, next to “cheap and cheerful” in the car dictionary, there would be a picture of the Kia Soul.

Additionally, the Soul was among the first of the mini-crossover vehicles to reach the consumer, granting Kia a head start in the hottest segment in the market right now.  While other manufacturers are rushing to get their mini-utes to dealerships (Fiat 500X, Jeep Renegade, Audi Q3, BMW X1, Honda HR-V, myriad others), Kia is a generation ahead with a refined product that’s hard to beat.  If you’re buying this type of vehicle, you’re not interested in driving dynamics, so why bother?  The Soul bulls-eyes everything this category needs, and happily ignores everything it doesn’t.

I’ve a coworker who used to drive a 996 cabriolet.  He needed something a little cheaper to run, and traded the Porsche in on a Kia Soul.  And now, I kinda understand why.

Is it green? … Yes. Very.

The One(s) That Got Away

Get a bunch of car folks together, and they can swap these stories all day—stories about the cars they’ve wanted that they couldn’t quite obtain, for any of a thousand reasons. I’ve seen this phenomenon, witnessed it, taken part in it myself on previous occasions. My story for today isn’t any more special than anyone else’s. But it’s still my story, and the other day it gained considerable, measureable economic poignancy, so I’ll share it here.

I was clicking about the /DRIVE channel on YouTube, and stumbled upon a video where Mike Spinelli filmed himself sitting in his swanky Manhattan Car Club, as he is wont to do. Joining him were a leader of said club as well as a VP of Hagerty Specialty Insurance. The fellas were discussing/forecasting what cars are ready to leap up in value and become collector’s items.

Nothing they said is much of a surprise for anyone who’s been following the market. 356 prices are absurd, air-cooled 911s are absurd, and Toyota FJ40s are truly, madly, deeply absurd. The near-mythical cars from the Japanese “Golden Age” of the early- to mid-90’s are, the fellas agreed, probably about to spike: the NSX, the 3000GT VR4, the 300ZX Twin Turbo, the Supra.

When I saw the Hagerty VP though, I thought to myself, hey, I’ve not been to the Hagerty webpage. Let’s check that out. And while perusing their listings, I stumbled across their year-by-year valuation of the 1993 Porsche 911 Carrera RS America.

That took me back to late 2010, when I was still mourning the loss of my 2003 Audi RS6. I was feeling the pangs of not owning a performance car, and searching high and low online for a suitable replacement. Suddenly, there it was: a not-unusually-worn RS America, on eBay Motors, for some unfathomably affordable price–I don’t recall exactly, but it was very, very attainable. Low-$30k range, maybe $31,500 or so, my memory insists. I was instantly out of my chair, knocking things over, searching desperately for a phone.

A voice on the other end answers the distant ringing! “I’m calling about a 964 RS America on eBay?” I say, trying not to sound too desperate or hopeful, and failing.

“It’s been sold,” says the voice, not without some anguish of its own. And, to make those dreadful words sting significantly more, he added, “but I kind of wish I’d asked for more money–I keep getting calls about it.”

Well of course he kept getting calls about it! An air-cooled, lightweight, special-edition 911? I’m not a smart man, as the guy says in the movie, but I know what a 911 that will appreciate in value is.

I was right, as the Hagerty chart proves. It’s essentially impossible to get an “RSA” now for less than seventy grand, and the super-clean ones are up in the ionosphere at nearly $170,000. So yeah, I’d say that one got away. Real, real far away.

I bet the remorse is significantly greater for the guy on the other end of the phone, though.


2012 Chevrolet Volt – Two-Year Review

Twenty-seven months, forty-one thousand miles, two moves, three states.  Our Volt is a veteran of the roads now, battle-hardened with dog hair, discarded Fruit Snacks, and its second set of tires.  It’s been plugged into public charging stations in Santa Fe, Benton Harbor, Des Moines, Denver, and probably a few places I’m forgetting.  It represents our first foray into EV/Hybrid ownership, and it wasn’t by any means an inexpensive one.  It is high time to take stock of the Volt’s performance and evaluate its place in the landscape of cars for sale here in the twenty-teens.

Chargers aren't exactly common, but it's a blessing when one can find them away from home.
Chargers aren’t exactly common, so finding one while away from home is like Christmas.

First, a few assumptions and rules.  All energy cost data comes from EIA.gov.  Electricity is measured in cents per kWh, averaged monthly over the ownership period.  Gas prices are US monthly average per gallon for premium unleaded.  All data on the Volt’s performance comes from OnStar, collected from the monthly “Vehicle Diagnostic Reports” automatically sent to my inbox.  When figuring miles per gallon on dino-juice alone, the EPA combined figure of 37mpg is used.

Our Volt has traveled 20,300 EV (electric) miles and 20,372 gas-powered miles.  The average cost of a kWh of electricity during that time has been $0.1224.  The average cost of gas has been $3.73.  In EV mode, the Volt has averaged 36.55 kWh consumed per 100 miles, or $0.0447 per mile.  Under gas power, per-mile fuel cost has been $0.1008.  Overall economy is up for debate—the Volt says it has averaged 67mpg, but my calculations have resulted in 107.67mpg or 141.72mpg, depending on assumptions.

The Volt might be modestly doing its math based on the EPA estimate that 33.7 kWh is equivalent to 1 gallon of gas.  This helps the “Lifetime MPG” number avoid getting pulled into the stratosphere during EV operation.  That’s fair, but on the other side of the coin, during 24 of the 27 months of ownership I wasn’t paying for the electricity used to charge the car.  At first, we were living on a military base where we weren’t separately charged, and for some time now, we’ve been in an apartment where the garage is detached from the living space and not individually metered.  Lucky us.

Anyway, no matter how you slice it, the car is mind-bogglingly efficient.  Consider that the 2014 new-vehicle fleet in the USA averages 24.2mpg.  Even worst-case, our Volt has been nearly three times as fuel-miserly.  OnStar tells me I’ve saved 1,101 gallons of fuel…do the math with the average gas price and that’s $4,109.01 saved in just over two years.  Assuming that doesn’t improve, I’ll have saved twelve grand by the time the 72-month, zero-interest loan is up.  Also, because the gas engine has done only half the work so far, the car is only now coming due for its SECOND oil change.

The sound system is the upgraded Bose piece, which sounds excellent, especially when running silently in EV mode.  The suspension is remarkably capable, masking many of the car’s 3,781 pounds and combining with the instant-on torque of the electric motor to make the car “adequately brisk!” according to Chris Harris.  The hatchback configuration means there’s lots of cargo room, rear seats folded down or not.  And it’s good fun to play the regeneration game, trying to keep the car in EV mode for as long as possible by coasting down hills and into stops.

Hatchback practicality.
Hatchback practicality.

So what are the tradeoffs for all the efficiency?  There are a few.  The navigation system—ugh.  It’s not an eye-pleasing system; it’s not intuitive to read or understand; it’s slow to respond to inputs on the touch screen; and more than once it’s taken me the long way ‘round.  Use your phone as a backup with this thing; or use it alone at the peril of your time-and-distance expectations.  Here’s hoping the new-gen Volt doesn’t have these issues.

The car sits very low to the ground in the interest of aerodynamics, so more than a few inches of snow and there’s gonna be a problem.  The stock eco-tires are not grippy in wet conditions, and certainly not in cold and wet conditions.  You’ll want a set of winter tires—we got Goodyear Ultra Grips.

You’ll want to keep it off the B-roads when it rains, as well. Thankfully after a wash she emerged good as new.

The Volt seats four (not five), and though the kids’ child seats fit and are naturally reclined by the rake of the backrest (encouraging sleep), their feet get the backs of the front seats all dirty.  I suspect this is a common parents’ lament, more the fault of the children than their chariot, but still.  The dog fits under the rear hatch, but has to duck her head to avoid getting whacked by the overhead glass when it closes.  On a sunny day, it can get warm back there under that glass—crank the A/C up to keep your four-legged friends cool.

Snug but smiling.
Snug but smiles all around.

The abrupt rear-end of this car means it sucks up a vortex of disturbed air while in motion.  Expect rain to get the entire rear fascia of the car horrifically dirty—don’t brush up against it while wearing nice clothes and trying to get something out of the rear cargo area.  This phenomenon also makes your rearview camera useless.  The sheer enormity of the rear hatch means the struts holding it up have a tough job, so watch your head on cold days.

Speaking of cold days, expect to lose approximately 33% of the maximum electric range when the weather gets consistently colder than 32 degrees.  Sure, most people’s daily commute is under 36-40 miles round trip, but under 24?  Not likely.  Expect overall economy to take a big hit if you live somewhere that has cold winters.  Even during EV operation, the car is less efficient, with seat heaters and defrosters and climate control consuming your battery instead of the electric drive.

kWh chart
Fairly obvious when winter takes place around here.

With all of that said, the car does exactly what we need about 90% of the time.  The difficulty comes when hauling all four of us, plus the dog, plus the luggage, to relatives’ for the holidays.  It gets pretty cramped in there when we try to do that.  As a result, and also as a result of my desire for some racecar-towing capacity, our Volt will someday be replaced by a Porsche Cayenne, either the base gas V6 or the Diesel.  Still, the thought of filling up the base model’s 22.4-gallon tank every 425 miles makes me wince.

Which is why the Chevrolet Bolt concept is such an intriguing bit of kit…

Bolt Concept

Audi, Atop the Ski Jump

I have some well-off relatives that live in Connecticut, and it was at one of their houses where I first remember seeing Audis.  I remember them looking sharp-edged and squared-off, but in the late 80’s there were lots of cars like that, and an offhand negative remark from another (probably jealous) family member mitigated any further interest I might have had at my young age.

I do remember the ski jump commercial, but again, I don’t recall it making much of an impression on me; I recall thinking that of course *all* cars could do that, but it was interesting that they’d gone to the trouble of putting the car up on the ski jump.

So it wasn’t until a spoiled rich kid that I knew tossed me, a rear-seat passenger in his late-90’s A4 1.8T, some lateral G’s in the high school parking lot that Audis really interested me.  All I knew at the time was that the 1.8T in that thing really PULLED right from a stop—probably the first time my young Corolla-calibrated brain noticed and catalogued torque.  The A4, of course, turned out to be the magic memory elixir that made America forget the “unintended acceleration” scandal of the Audi 5000 (which, as per usual in such cases, was more operator error than design flaw), and suddenly Audis became fairly common on the streets of the USA again.

Still, the horizon of my Audi knowledge wasn’t far from the tip of my nose.  And then, a few things happened, closely enough in time and space that my interest increased exponentially.

First, I finished college and started drawing a regular paycheck.  Around that same time, the May 2003 issue of Car & Driver hit the shelves.  I didn’t have a subscription while in school, but I grabbed a C&D from the bookstore on occasion, so I was familiar enough with the publication.  By “familiar enough,” I mean I knew that BMWs won every C&D comparison into which they entered, all the time, no exceptions.  Right?  Everyone who reads C&D knows this.

So when in the May 2003 issue, Audi trumped BMW in not one but TWO comparison tests (“Compact Adrenaline-Delivery Systems” and “Deep-Pocket Rockets”), I remember raising an eyebrow.  Audi, the brand that ten years previously one couldn’t even find on the average US street, was suddenly better than demigod BMW?

Two short years later, the very first iteration of Forza Motorsport arrived for Xbox.  While playing it one day, I suddenly stopped short.  Wait.  In 2003, Audi made a 450 hp, twin-turbo V8 four-door sedan?  A family car with a strong enough power-to-weight ratio to run with sports cars?  And then I made the connection—wasn’t this the Audi that bested the M5 in the May 2003 C&D?  I became an unabashed Audi fan.  It looked as though the cars from Ingolstadt were on the upswing.

My opportunity for ownership showed itself a few years later when I sold my first house at sizeable profit after making significant improvements.  I had also recently been promoted at work, and felt like it was time to replace my first post-college car with a more impressive ride (a mistake in hindsight—I miss that Acura RSX).  I found a private seller in the Chicago suburbs wishing to part with my dream example—an RS6 in Mugello Blue, with Ivory leather and carbon fiber trim.


I discovered that the car had deserved to win that comparo with the M5.  It was astoundingly fast, and felt utterly competent and composed no matter what was asked of it.  It made an incredible noise of V8 burble-thunder, intermixed with spooling turbos.  It sat four comfortably with plenty of trunk space.  With fresh tires, high-temp brake fluid for its eight-piston calipers, and new, stiffer sway bars, it embarrassed a C6 Corvette and an S5 coupe on the track at Buttonwillow Raceway in Bakersfield, CA.  I can say from personal experience, then, that Audi can make (and has made) some spectacular cars.

After bringing the RS6 to US shores in 2003, Audi doubled down, giving the US the RS4 in 2006 and the stunning R8 in 2008.  The R8 dovetailed nicely with the release of “Truth in 24,” the riveting, NFL-Films-produced, Jason-Statham-narrated, free-on-iTunes documentary about the 2008 Audi Sport Team Joest’s year-long effort and eventual victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

While the R8 and RS4 were aspirational cars, the A4 got a comprehensive redesign for the 2008 model year as well, making the brand’s hot cachet readily accessible to the upper middle class.  The economic downturn slowed sales growth, but once the Great Recession passed, Audi started hitting consecutive best-ever-US-sales years, and the brand became more common than at any previous point in my lifetime.

2012 saw the arrival of the gorgeous A7 and its mechanical equivalent, the handsome-but-more-conventional A6.  Both packed the now-ubiquitous “3.0T” supercharged V6, a stunning MultiMedia Interface (MMI) display, and a sumptuous cockpit.  Both cars were well-received by the automotive press, with the A7 netting Automobile Magazine’s “Automobile of the Year.”

And since then…almost nothing.

There have been projects and show cars and R8 special editions.  There have been more Le Mans wins.  There’s been the R8 V12 TDI concept in Detroit, circa 2008.  There’s been the e-tron concept in Frankfurt, circa 2009.  There’s been the R20 rumor.  There’s been the breathtaking Quattro Concept in Paris, circa 2010.  There was the TDI-availability explosion for model year 2014.  But lately, it’s hard to say that Audi continues to truly embrace the “Vorsprung durch Technik” motto that it has always been synonymous with.

Why?  Because in its quest to become the world’s top-selling automaker, the VW Group has the Audi brand reaching downmarket.  Instead of creating the next great thing as with the A7 or R8, Audi’s resources have lately been pouring into the A3 and Q3, targeting a magic dollar amount ($30,000 on the A3) instead of targeting a luxury “feel” with less demanding price controls.  This is necessary, the Group believes, to achieve the 1-million-US-units-sold goal across Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, and the other US brands under its umbrella.  I have to feel this pressure for volume superseding the desire for quality luxury may have had something to do with the sudden departure of Audi USA President Johan de Nysschen (hired to lead Cadillac this past summer) in May 2012.

With this downmarket reach, instead of leading the way with new and inspiring designs and technologies, Audi has been only managing to keep up with other manufacturers on the tech front, and skating by with aging higher-end models on the design front, all while finding it more and more difficult to justify its demanded price premium, in part because the Four Rings badge can be had for less money.  Examples: Audi was the first to offer Wi-Fi in their cars, and for 2015 moved to 4G-powered Wi-Fi – the same as, for example, Chevrolet.  Speaking of which, Audi will bring in a low-priced A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid in early 2015, which sounds like it performs essentially the same as the Volt, which Chevrolet introduced back in 2011 (expect the new Volt, scheduled for unveiling in January 2015 at the NAIAS in Detroit, to smoke the A3 e-tron in every meaningful way).  Audi highlighted its TDI models in late 2013 for the 2014 push, but many Americans who can afford the models on offer still shy away from diesel (most of these buyers remember 70’s-vintage diesels, do so rather unfavorably, and don’t know what the 24 Hours of Le Mans is), so the TDI explosion pretty much fizzled in terms of driving increased sales volume…and by 2014, other manufacturers had begun to offer diesels, too, for the discerning customer.  Audi made use of Google Maps to power its first MMI system, and future Audis will be equipped with Android Auto…again, just like many other manufacturers.

So, has Audi somewhat “lost” itself in the VW Group quest for ever-higher sales figures?  In my enthusiast opinion, all Audis should have full-time mechanical all-wheel-drives with actual mechanical differentials.  There should be at least one five-cylinder model available, tying the brand to its history.  There should be no difference in the “scale” of luxury from Audi to Audi—they should all be impeccably fit and finished, brilliantly painted, and richly appointed.  If the VW Group wants volume, they should turn to the VW brand, instead of cannibalizing VW sales by cheapening Audi.

Still, perhaps the Four Rings are only taking a breath after all, and there’s yet a chance for Audi to turn it around.  Recent news brings us some tantalizing prospects.  The 2016 S6 looks brilliant, essentially doing a contemporary 2003 RS6 impression sans only the “R.”  The RS7 seems pretty much unbeatable as a money-no-object fast four-seat GT car.  The 2016 Q7 looks like a great update as well.  And here’s hoping the 2016 TT can make that particular nameplate resonate again—my wife and I were just remarking on how there used to be TTs seemingly everywhere, and we hardly see them anymore.  The driver-focused cockpit is very nice, and the gauge cluster going full-digital is more like it—more like the “Vorsprung durch Technik” I want from the Four Rings.

So it seems like Audi is hovering at a precipice atop the ski jump.  Do they plunge down into the ghastly storm below, seeking volume over competence?  Or do they do the harder, better thing and add on to the ski jump, stretching it to reach a higher altitude?  It seems 2015 and 2016 will bring us a little of both—here’s hoping the highs for Audi outweigh the lows.  Unless one of the lows is losing to Porsche at Le Mans, of course.

2014 LE Mans Winning R18 e-tron quattro no2

Schonesland Dragoon Trail Drive 2014

The weather could not have been better for Schonesland’s Dragoon Trail drive this past Saturday.  The sky gleamed blue with the occasional bit of glittering cirrus frosting as a procession of Porsches nearly two dozen strong filed out of the Machine Shed in Urbandale, bound for parts north.  Convertible tops went down as temperatures cleared the mid-sixties and climbed into the seventies.  From my point of view, last in line with my wife Anne and my two boys in my 996 C4S, trailing just behind Sue’s gleaming black-on-tan 987 Cayman S, things had started off pretty perfectly.

Shortly before we crossed onto the the IA-210 bridge over the Des Moines River, running parallel to the famed High Trestle rail bridge, I noticed that I wasn’t last in line anymore.  Somehow a lovely silver 993 had taken the tail-end-Charlie position from me, and I was having trouble keeping my eyes off the lovely front end of it as it winked in my rearview mirror.  This was not a standard 993 Carrera, I noted by the low-slung artistry of the front bumper.

The convoy ducked into the Casey’s on Mamie Eisenhower Avenue in Boone, IA for a quick stretch.  The marching order got a bit scrambled as we all scanned for parking spots, and the 993 passed in front of me.  And I’d been right!  Not just any Carrera, but a 993 Carrera 4S.  Oh, how I’d wanted one of those when my search for a 911 began.  In my eyes, they had just the perfect look for a 911—the right hips, the right ride height, the right wheels, the right lights.  The perfect mix of subtlety, menace, and style.  Sadly the 993s hovered just out of my price-reach, and I “settled” for my car.  (And you’ll pry it from my cold, dead hands, you air-cooled purists!)

We turned keys to press on after our break and relished the chorus of the boxers.  These were accompanied by at least two 944 inline fours, plus a lone BMW V8—bless Skip for nearly having reached 100,000 miles on that stunning Z8 of his.  We passed the Scenic Valley Rail Station—stop by there during this coming holiday season for a ride, I highly recommend it—and proceeded north out of Boone.

Positions had again switched; Sue’s Cayman was now behind, and the 993 C4S was in front of me.  This was delightful, for as lovely as the front of a 993 C4S is, the back is perhaps even more perfectly formed.  I could now hear the rasp of the flat six and watch the rise and fall of the rear wing as the group negotiated intersections and stop signs.  I noted that said rear wing on the 993 didn’t seem to abide by the same numbers as my rear wing; mine rises at 75mph and remains up until the speedo falls back below 37mph.  The 993’s numbers seemed to both be a bit lower.

And then, as we pulled up to a stop sign just outside Stratford, IA, the 993’s wing didn’t retract at all.  Anne and I both said something to the effect that that was odd.  And then I heard the 993’s starter clicking away, and the driver waved me past.  Right, as if I was going to leave the automotive equivalent of Christie Brinkley stranded on a random road an hour from home.

I hopped out, introduced myself, and met Karen, the driver.  First order of business was to get the 993 off the road, so Karen put it in neutral and Sue (who’d also stopped, bless her) and I pushed the car into a nearby driveway.  I had some jumper cables, and when I brought this up, my boys, ages 4 and 5, got very excited—they thought the cars would physically leap off the ground when the cables were put to use.  They seemed sort of surprised that this was the first they had heard of jumper cables, and if they’d put a bit more thought into it, might have asked why we don’t just use the “jumper” cables all of the time and avoid traffic.

Anyway, over the course of the next hour or so, I learned where a 993’s battery is (different spot, further forward and lower down than in my 996), as well as that it doesn’t much matter how many times you jump-start a 993 if the accessory drive belt is broken.  Note: it’ll run for as long as the cables are hooked up, but not long after that.  Karen spoke with her insurance company, but before they could respond, a helpful local from a nearby shop had gotten word, arrived, and fairly quickly diagnosed the root cause of the problem.  Karen begged us off to lunch, and I thought we’d best go, as our boys had been well-behaved thus far but would soon get tired and antsy.

Sue’s 987 led the way as we two Porsches shot across the farmland from Stratford toward 209Main, the massive restaurant at the same address in Paton, IA, where we rejoined the group, actually arriving only minutes after they did due to our direct, non-scenic route.  Sue went the extra mile by recruiting Gary and going back with him to Stratford to retrieve Karen and her daughter, bringing them both to the restaurant once the 993 was safely in a shop with a replacement belt ordered and on the way.

So we all successfully made it to lunch and enjoyed some views of harvest-time Iowa.  And while this article (and its’ author) may not have followed the route that the reader may have expected, it really does serve to highlight PCA’s “cars…people” tagline, does it not?  One might join the club to see some beautiful cars, and see beautiful cars one certainly would.  But what keeps the community alive and well are the people that go out of their way to make it so outstanding, no matter what happens.  I’ll be in PCA for a long time, I think.

993 C4S


F1 2014 – Four Races Remain

Before anything else can be said about the 2014 Formula 1 season, it is necessary at this point in time to preface with a sincere hope that Marussia driver Jules Bianchi of Nice, France experiences a full recovery from his severe injuries sustained in his crash at the Japan Grand Prix in Suzuka.  Motorsport is dangerous—Jules knew this far better than most of us can—and yet he regularly strapped himself into a Formula 1 machine that was never going to win a race, simply because (and I can find no other way to express this) motorsport is glorious, too.  Indeed, all of the very best to young Jules and his family.

The 2014 Formula 1 season raised the curtain on a new era.  F1 has forever been the most scientifically advanced racing series, and in 2014 it would raise the technological bar to never-before-seen heights.  Leaving the V8s of 2013 behind, the new “power units” (it would be a vast oversimplification to call them “engines”) output nearly the same energy as their forebears, but while using 35% less fuel.  They accomplish this by incorporating a turbocharged 1.6L V6 and two massively complex electric propulsion systems: one connected to the V6’s crankshaft, and one mounted to the turbocharger’s turbine shaft.  Both of these provide both energy capture and energy output.  For example, the turbine shaft system (MGU-H) generates electricity created by the spinning of the turbo (which is motivated by the engine exhaust gases) and can send that power to the other electric system (MGU-K), which can add up to 120kW to the driven wheels.  Alternatively, the MGU-H can expend collected energy by keeping the massive turbo spinning while exhaust gases are NOT flowing (i.e., the driver is off-throttle while slowing for a corner).  Thus when the driver reapplies power exiting the corner, there is no waiting for maximum power from the turbo since it never slowed its spin.

Of course this is all much more easily stated in words than physically made to happen.  The electronics assemblies in the cars must be meticulously programmed to make all of these parts do the right jobs at the right places and right times, optimally in a manner completely transparent to the driver, all while being thrashed around a track, wheel to wheel with other cars, at speeds up to two hundred miles per hour.

It sounds preposterous.  Nigh impossible.  And yet with each passing race, we see the F1 teams come out and put this technology to use.  And in the case of the Mercedes AMG Patronas team, we see it put to use in a manner which has proved better than all others.

In this age of such stunning technology, there was concern the machines would overshadow the men piloting them.  That has not been the case.  In fact, far from being the relative snooze-fest that was the 2013 season, 2014 has been utterly gripping.  Both Mercedes teammates, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, are at the top of their game, battling against each other lap by lap, race by race, for the driver’s championship.

Lewis last won the title in 2008 with McLaren, the team that brought him into the sport.  He surprised many by leaving McLaren at the end of the 2012 season for Mercedes, whose cars were hardly competitive in the era prior to 2014.  He’s proven that the move was a masterful one, both for him and the Silver Arrows.

Nico started in F1 with Williams and performed solidly enough to generate interest at Mercedes, who signed him for the 2010 season.  While often overshadowed as a result of being teamed with 7-time world champion Michael Schumacher, Rosberg frequently earned the better result of the two.  Now, he’s overshadowed again by being paired with Hamilton, who hails from the UK—the seat of power in F1.  It hasn’t dulled his ability to win.

At the 2014 season opener in Australia, Hamilton was forced to retire with engine trouble while Rosberg crushed the field, winning by 24 seconds.  Next up was Malaysia, where Hamilton took the top step of the podium, besting his teammate by 17 seconds.  This was the first of a string of four wins for Hamilton, the most thrilling of which took place in Bahrain, where he and Rosberg dueled wheel-to wheel so fanatically that during a period of yellow flag, Mercedes’ team technical director Paddy Lowe implored Hamilton to “make sure we bring both cars home.”

Rosberg dominated Memorial Day weekend at Monaco, taking the top step of the podium at F1’s most glamorous race for the second year in a row.  In Canada, the Mercedes cars encountered reliability problems.  Hamilton was unable to finish the race due to brake failure, while Rosberg nursed his car to the checkered flag with an MGU-K problem, managing second behind the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo.  Brake problems again plagued the Mercs in Austria, requiring constant attention from both Nico and Lewis, with Rosberg notching another victory over Hamilton, who finished second.

Heading to Silverstone for the British Grand Prix, the storyline revolved around hometown crowd favorite Hamilton barely hanging onto his championship hopes.  Rosberg seemed to have weathered the previous races’ reliability storm a bit better, and had built a significant points lead in doing so—165 to 136.  With the Mercs’ nearest competition far behind and eleven races remaining in the season, it seemed that Hamilton could hardly depend upon recovering the lead conventionally, were he only able to claw back seven points at a time (first place pays 25 points; second pays 18), allowing for some inconsistency.

Hamilton seemed to seal his fate at Silverstone when during qualifying he set a great lap time, only to relax on his final lap before time expired in the belief he could not better his time.  Track conditions were improving, however, and Rosberg (as well as four other drivers) pounced, relegating Hamilton to sixth on the starting grid.  Lewis had no explanation for not playing to the proverbial whistle, looking visibly staggered in the post-qualifying presser and calling it “my mistake.”

Hamilton charged back through the field on race day and was pressuring Rosberg, but further drama was unnecessary; Nico’s gearbox failed.  Hamilton went on to win, narrowing the points gap from 29 to 4 in one fell swoop.  The UK crowd was delirious to see this play out before their eyes.

The competition remained tight through the German and Hungarian GPs, with Lewis dogging Nico’s every step.  In Germany, Hamilton suffered a wince-inducing crash in qualifying due to a brake malfunction, then battled up through the field on race day to achieve a third-place finish while Nico breezed to a win.  Hamilton battled yet more adversity at the Hungaroring when his car was consumed by fire in qualifying—he still managed to finish third, with Nico fourth.  Then, at Spa in Belgium, the drama intensified yet another notch: while battling for the lead, the two Mercedes cars touched, and Hamilton got the worst of it, coming away with his left rear tire cut and deflated.  Unable to finish the race, Hamilton watched as his teammate took the win, returning his points lead to 29.  After the race, Rosberg admitted culpability and was “disciplined” by the team.

At Monza in Italy, Hamilton’s car bogged down at the start.  Rosberg leapt into the lead, but twice during the race missed the chicane at the end of the start/finish straight (the second time while under intensifying pressure from Hamilton, and after saying to his engineer “do not tell me the gap [between Lewis and I]”).  Rosberg’s gaffe enabled Hamilton to regain first position and take the victory over his teammate by three seconds.

Two weeks later in Singapore, the two Mercs qualifying times were separated by a mere seven-thousandths of a second.  Rosberg suffered an electronics failure on the race starting grid, however, and ultimately retired after thirteen slow, frustrating laps.  Hamilton battled hard in the heat and humidity with the Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo, ultimately maximizing his tires over a long fast stint to build a lead large enough to survive a late-race pit stop for fresh rubber.  Vettel overtook Hamilton as Lewis exited the pits, but only just, and the Mercedes car spent only one lap behind the Red Bull and its spent tires before blasting past into turn seven.  Hamilton then pulled away and logged a victory by a margin of thirteen seconds, vaulting him back into the overall points lead for the first time since the Spanish GP more than four months earlier.

Race day on the stunning Suzuka Circuit in Japan brought significant rain from the fringes of Typhoon Phanfone.  Rosberg had qualified in the dry two-tenths faster than Hamilton, but complained of oversteer in the wet race conditions.  Hamilton proved faster, overtaking his teammate into turn one midway through the race, which saw two periods of red flag.  “Lewis was quicker today and deserved the win,” Nico said afterward.  It was Hamilton’s third first-place finish in a row.

All of which brings us to the present.  Four grands prix remain: Russia, USA, Brazil, and Abu Dhabi.  Somewhat ridiculously (2010-2013 world champion Vettel called it “absurd”), the winner at Abu Dhabi will score double points, that is, 50 instead of the usual 25.  So as if there was not enough drama in the season thusfar—after fires, malfunctions, collisions, drifts, pit lane starts, crashes, some epic saves, and some incredibly tight, flat-out wheel-to-wheel racing—it seems very likely that the championship will remain undecided until the final race.  After early-season concern that the new cars might not sound good enough, the on-track product his been so compelling that that discussion has fallen out of the collective consciousness entirely (well, almost entirely).

While some decry the hybrid era, this author welcomes it.  It’s pushed F1 back to the forefront of powerplant technology as well as brought on some spectacular competition.  Here’s to a great 2014 season, here’s to a great final sprint to the checkered flag, and here’s to the health of Jules Bianchi.

MercAMG W05