Category Archives: Motor Sports

Carroll Shelby, 1923 – 2012

One of the titans of motor sports, race car driver and constructor Carroll Shelby passed away in Dallas today. He was 89 years old.

Perhaps his greatest stroke of genius: By the late 1950s, light and nimble British roadsters were sticking it to more powerful American race cars on many tracks. Shelby figured out a way to squeeze huge, powerful American V-8 engines made by Ford into comparably tiny British roadsters made by AC. The result was one of the most legendary sports car series in history: The AC Cobra (aka “Shelby Cobra”).

An early model AC Cobra. Click to enlarge. Picture: WikiStahlkocher.

Wish I had one. An original, of course.

Shelby’s web site:

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Pit Stops

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500 auto race. I followed it on TV and was astounded by the many mishaps in the pits. They were all caused by the driver taking off before the crewmen had completed their tasks. This is how races are lost. Sometimes, lives are put in jeopardy as wheels and other parts turn into projectiles, or racing fuel catches fire.

One question bugs me: why is there no “lollipop man” — like in Formula 1? This is a crew member whose sole job consists of monitoring the pit crew to make sure everyone is done. While they work, he holds a “stop” (or “brake”) sign on a long stick (the “lollipop”) in front of the driver’s eyes. Once all crew members signal “clear”, the lollipop man turns the “stop” sign to “go” and jumps out of the way as the driver guns the engine.

This would be a simple solution to an old problem. I can’t figure out why Indy 500 teams are not employing it. Overall, it seems to me that pit stops in Indy racing are by far not as sophisticated compared to what happens in Formula 1.

Watch this clip from a BBC documentary:


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Rotary Speed

Here is a picture I took at Mazda’s North American headquarters in Irvine, California. The occasion was the 2010 SevenStock meet, an annual gathering for rotary engine enthusiasts.

Mazda RX-792P race car. Photo: Reinhard Kargl, 2010. (Click to enlarge).

The car pictured is the RX-792P of 1992. This particular car was not very successful on the track, but I think it remains one of the most beautiful race cars ever built. One year earlier, a similar car with the same 4-rotor Wankel engine had been victorious in one of the most grueling auto races the world has ever known: the 24 Hours of LeMans.

I am fascinated with Wankel-type rotary engines. Designed in the 1950s by the German engineer, Felix Wankel, they offer many advantages over conventional piston-engines. And yet, Wankel’s design was never universally adopted among auto makers. Today, its only global, large scale manufacturer is Japan’s Mazda Motor Corporation.

Truth be told, all types of rotary engines also have disadvantages. But it seems to me that many doubts regarding the Wankel engine’s design are based on outdated information. When the engine type was first fielded by Germany’s NSU Motorenwerke AG, its contemporaries and licensees during the 1960s, the technological prerequisites had not evolved yet. The rotary concept was simply ahead of its time.

Today, after decades of experience and with much better materials, a more thorough understanding of thermodynamics, big advances in lubricants and seals, as well as the benefits of turbo or compressor charging, fuel injection, electronic engine control and emission control technologies, things have changed.  Mazda has done quite well with getting the Wankel’s inherent problems under control.

Given more R&D funding and a better supply of skilled and experienced maintenance personnel, Wankel engines could be made ideal for sports cars, motorcycles, aircraft and — due to their high power output at a relatively small size and low weight: as auxiliary engine for hybrid cars. Audi’s A1 e-tron concept study incorporates this configuration!

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Falcon 9 Successful – Lessons From Formula One

Hawthorne / Los Angeles County based SpaceX is celebrating a monumental breakthrough today after a successful first launch of its Falcon 9 rocket.

I followed the launch via video feed from Cape Canaveral this morning. At first I was disappointed when the initial launch attempt resulted in a lock-down just at the moment of ignition. I thought for sure it was a scrub. But the launch window was still open. After the countdown clock was reset, everything worked well on the second try. About 10 minutes later, the upper stage with a mock-up of the proposed Dragon crew capsule entered into a low Earth orbit.

This was the inaugural flight of Falcon 9, intended for testing only. What does it mean?

First of all, SpaceX is again proving the doubters wrong. It has shown that a relatively new, relatively small company can successfully design, build and fly a launch vehicle into space. It does so better, faster and cheaper than NASA, which is so stuck in a quagmire of politics, personal maneuvering and a bureaucratic approach to engineering and innovation that it has completely failed to come up with any new launch vehicle in 25 years.

As if it were big news that the remaining three Space Shuttles, with their system history of 25 years of service (and 2 fatal accidents) are more than ready for their final flights to a museum. Nor should it be a big surprise that without the Shuttle and without any alternatives, the U.S. again lacks the capacity for manned flights to space. This means that the U.S. has no autonomous access to the ISS. In 25 years of shuttle operations, NASA could not come up with anything flightworthy?

And the aerospace giants, such as Boeing and Lockheed-Martin? They had no motivation to design anything new and cheaper. For what? To make their existing satellite launch hardware obsolete? Conveniently, they have a captive market for satellite launches. That’s because U.S. law prohibits the launch of many U.S. payloads on foreign launch vehicles. It’s a matter of “national security”, we are told. How come the Europeans are less concerned about that? They all partner with each other and with Russia to launch their payloads.

Manned flights? A crew capsule? Perhaps the aerospace giants could have been given funding to make their satellite launch vehicles (or derivatives) safe enough for human flight. (I suspect NASA and its political backers wanted none of that).

There is an interesting parallel in Formula 1 motor racing. History has shown that small, agile racing teams, with factory sponsorship and with a small, dynamic workforce are overall outperforming teams run by large car manufacturers.

In the crazy world of high-tech motorsports, there is intense competition. Teams must work around the clock to continuously innovate, learn from mistakes, outmaneuver the opponents and adapt to changes. Every race is different, and new challenges (and regulations) appear all the time.

Whoever can adapt the fastest is the most likely to arrive first at the finish line. On the racing circuit, the big car companies are like bulls racing against greyhounds. Not even Fiat-owned Ferrari is an exception. Aware that Ferrari is a national obsession and sacred to Italians, Fiat bosses are smart enough to leave it largely alone. Ferrari’s engineers and technical managers have broad decision making powers and are not micromanaged by the Fiat-Board and bean counters.

Yes, one will often find the name plates of well known automobile manufacturers on engines and other critical components. But this does not mean that Mercedes-Benz or Ford really do the R&D for these highly specialized machines. They often hire contractors — small, agile teams of experts — to solve specific problems and come up with engineering solutions, in the least amount of time. Examples of such specialty engineering firms are Cosworth and Ilmor, both in the UK, and Dallara in Italy.

This kind of structure and engineering management is exactly what is needed if we want to achieve a drop in cost, along with more reliability, in space transportation. NASA, I am afraid, is in its current state incapable of this kind of agile management and risk-taking approach. I speculate that if NASA entered a team in Formula 1, it could be initially competitive by hiring experts from other teams. But it would spend a multiple of other teams to do so and fall behind after a few years. (Oh, how I wish to see everyone on the race track!)

Meanwhile, the future for SpaceX glistens with rocket fuel right now. Of course, one successful launch doth not make a reliable launch vehicle. A lot of further tests will be needed until Falcon 9 could be deemed safe enough to fly humans to the ISS, which is the eventual goal.

If successful, SpaceX will be able to do this in less time and for a lot less money than NASA’s ill conceived Constellation program which, in typical NASA fashion, remains stuck in the mud.

Addendum June 7, 2010: In a press release today, SpaceX claims that it developed the entire Falcon 9 system, the Dragon spacecraft and the launch hardware for what it would cost NASA to build just the Ares 1 launch tower. SpaceX has only about 1,000 employees to date.

Please also see my earlier, related post on NASA’s lingering Constellation program.

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