Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Magic 8-Ball Says: Outlook Not So Good

My Dad now drives a Volkswagen Amarok. He calls it The Wolf, partly because "amarok" is Inuit for wolf and partly because I don't think he's ever seen Pulp Fiction. It is the most ridiculous thing ever. Feels like driving a monster truck, you need a step ladder to clean the windscreen and it comes with an eight-speed gearbox - eight! This is because it's a German car from Germany and needed to be able to handle every speed from a standing start right through to V-max on ze autobahns. No it was never going to set the German highway system alight, but it needed to be, at the very least, not dangerously slow (I'm told if you get stuck behind a semi on an autobahn, that's it: other people will be coming up too fast for you to pull out and get past). So, fit that low-revving turbo diesel with more ratios and it'll have a wider spread of speeds. With an automatic, it literally doesn't matter how many are in there until the gearbox case is poking out both ends of the car.

Pictured: why the manual has only six speeds.

Same thing with the paddle-shift gearbox on a Grand Prix car. It doesn't really matter how many ratios you cram in there, the cockpit only has controls for the next one and the last one. Ergo, the number's been slowly creeping up over the years: back in the 90's they still only had six. For most of the Noughties it was seven. This year it's eight. Why don't they cut the foreplay and just bring in CVT you ask? Well, because the rule-makers think it would be boring and they want to maintain the spectacle. And that's rather worrying, because they left the engineers in charge of the asylum.

Great video, I honestly didn't really get how seamless-shift worked until I saw it. Seamless shift started making inroads into Formula 1 around 2006 (ironically, a little bit after they'd started showing up on road cars). Compared to the previous generation of (amazingly fast) Formula 1 gearboxes, that saved around two seconds a race - in a sport where races are won by tenths, a very worthy investment (forum trivia: generally only top gear made it past 1:1, which is the same as 3rd in your car. The rest are all reduction gears. If you were wondering how it was possible for a Grand Prix car to do 0 to 100 in less than two seconds, a major part of it was that the gearbox was substantially reducing the amount of work the engine had to do!).

But despite that, the basic concept remains pretty simple: your engine revs times your gear ratios times the size of your wheels equals the speed you're doing. If you can get your head around that, the actual numbers aren't that important.

So riddle me this - why have this year's cars grown an extra gear? Yes, they have lost some revs (redlining at 15,000rpm instead of 18,000 like last year), but the extra torque from those turbo engines should have cancelled that out. Just fit slightly taller ratios and they'd wind out to roughly the same top speed at Monza they've always had (which is, and always has been, frighteningly fast).

The other possible reason is because they need to keep the engine revving in the sweet spot. Ah, that sounds more like it. Turbo engines are notorious for the behaviour of their turbo; it's like the Tarja Turunen of an engine, an irritating diva that just happens to make the whole thing work. And like a diva, if you stop feeding it hot air it loses motivation and gives up. If you want the power to be there, you need to keep the revs up, and a fantastic way of keeping the revs up is to have lots of gears to choose from: "Hmm, middle of the corner, 12,000rpm, do I want third, fourth or fifth for this next bit? Better make it third, give that turbo a good squirt before the straight..."

And that, in my mind, is the problem. I don't want them to have choices. I don't want them keeping the revs up. I want them to screw it up occasionally. I want to see the driver fighting his car, standing on the throttle like it's a half-open manhole to Hell to keep the turbo turning over, even though he's running out of grip and climbing the ripple strips as it is. I want to see a driver lose a place because he took a corner wrong and lost the boost was left stranded. I want the cars to be less than perfect so the drivers have to display - not just use, display - a lot of skill to race them. What we're going to get instead are cars that glide through every corner as placid as Zen masters and then try to claw past each other using DRS and "push to pass" buttons.

But there it is, Grand Prix racing in the modern age: the FIA is desperate to have an exciting, down-to-the-wire World Championship this year, and they have absolutely no idea how to go about it. Forget eight gears, they should have dropped it to six.


  1. Youd love what audi are doing with road cars then. Theyre looking at using an electric motor to add supplemental power to the rotating assembly of the turbocharger. That way they can develop boost immediately and anywhere in the rev range. All the benefits of a supercharger, all the benefits of a turbocharger, less drawbacks, more power across more of the rev range.

    Then theyll mount it up against a ZF 8 speed slushbox, just to make sure. The germans dont do unturned stones in the engineering dept.

    1. For a road car that sounds like six distinct kinds of awesome. Road cars are like plumbing, they're meant to hide all the stuff you'd rather forget. Take it anywhere near a racing car though and I'll kick your bloody head in.