Archive for category Car stuff

Playing with the traffic

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m going to miss the Shanghai traffic.

When I got here I thought it was insane. Well I got that much right. It is insane and people and cars and bicycles and bikes really do come at you from every possible direction. But there’s a lot more of a pattern to it than I originally though (OK I thought it was a free for all).  I have now spent just over two years driving a motorbike or an electric scooter around in the middle of it and I’ve totally adapted. There is a clear flow, and a clear hierarchy. The only real rule is “don’t EVER mess with the buses’.


There are two aspects I’ll particularly miss.

Firstly – the fact that the traffic is absolutely not aggressive. There is some poor driving, of course, but everyone is pretty calm. You can carve people up, drive around them and nobody bats an eyelid. It’s all considered fair game.

Secondly – the fact that you can just keep going. If you are on an electric scooter, you are essentially considered a pedestrian, so you don’t need to stop at red lights, you can bounce up on the pavement when the road is blocked, you can go in any direction down any street, or indeed any lane. Finally, you can park pretty much anywhere.

The flip side of adapting so well to  the traffic here is the rather more challenging re-adaptation when riding the scooter in the US. I’ll have to remember to behave. “Ni hao officer….”

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The best seats for the Shanghai GP

This year’s Grand Prix season has been pretty exciting so far –with the possible exception of last weekend’s Monaco snoozefest.

By far the most exciting race for me was the Shanghai GP. Not just because it was on my doorstep, but because we had paddock passes. I enjoyed the race and Force India’s hospitality thanks to some rather fortuitous and generous connections. Now I’m ruined for life. I watched the whole thing on a TV at the back of the garage.  In the absence of any commentary I quite honestly had no idea what was going on but I did get to watch the pit-stops from a few metres away. Oh yes.

You could blink and miss this - but this is a pit stop....

One thing that really surprised me is how calm everything was before and during the race. Beforehand, all the race engineers are calmly running through what I assume are pre-race procedures. No tension, just calm.  I’m quite sure I’d be emptying my adrenaline soaked stomach before a race but instead the drivers are hanging out, talking to people, having lunch etc.

During the race, all the race engineers sit on neat rows of seats, motionlessly watching a rather small TV. It wasn’t a bored stiff sort of motionless – they were alert and totally focussed on the events on the screens. They could be statues until just before each pitstop  – when there’s a brief flurry of calm, collected activity. Given that pitstops only last about 4 secs now (ridiculous I know) I barely managed to get my camera out before they had sped away again.

Engineers all watching tiny screens in surprisingly tidy rows

Just around the corner, race techs watch  the cars progress around a virtual track, monitoring a dizzying amount of information about every aspect of the cars’ performance.

Here's where it all happens - every single race variable is constantly analysed and optimised

Another surprise was quite what a British centred event the GP is. You see all the international drivers and assume this is an international spectacle, but really a significant majority of the players seem to be Brits. So each Grand Prix is a small British island of craziness completely untouched by local culture of customs. This mobile island is really like a travelling circus that sets up in a new town, puts on a show, then packs up and moves to the next place. And it packs up remarkably quickly. While the podium celebration was taking place, the paddock quickly filled up with all sizes of packing boxes and packing crates – just one week later it was all going to be repeated in Bahrain.

The final thing that surprised me was quite how starstruck I was. I’ve worked in Chelsea for years and was entirely underwhelmed by the procession of footballers, minor celebrities etc that were sighted every week. But I was genuinely surprised at how excited I was to be standing watching the podium from the pitlane behind Ross Brawn, only to turn round and have Eddie Jordan walk into a picture I was taking. The drivers were strolling around and of course Coulthard was EVERYWHERE.

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Licenced to drive

I’m feeling an enormous sense of achievement. The other day I passed my test and am now the proud owner of a Chinese driving licence. Oh yes.

As I already have a licence (actually two) I didn’t have to do the actual practical test but I did have to do the theory test. You wouldn’t think that would be that difficult as driving signs and regulations are pretty much the same the world over aren’t they?

Actually the test is pretty difficult. This is in part because you have to learn answers to approximately 1000 questions (the book is almost 200 pages) but also because the questions are in Chinglish (I bet they used Google translate for it all). But actually what makes it particularly difficult is the fact that a significant proportion of the questions are completely bonkers. I’ll give you an example of an actual question:

What’s the correct answer?

After a vehicle falls into water, the wrong method for the driver to rescue himself is to:

A)   Close the window to prevent water from flowing into the vehicle

B)   Immediately use hand to open the door

C)   Let the water to fill up the driver’s cab so that the water pressure both inside and outside is equal

D)   Use a large plastic bag to cover the head and tight the neck closely.
Well, I thought that anything that involves putting a plastic bag over your head HAS to be the LAST solution to any problem, and therefore the right answer. It isn’t. The right answer is A. So it’s better to put a bag over your head than close the window. Ooooookaaaaay.

There are a series of first aid questions that are somewhat confusing. There is one where the correct answer is “cushioned limb folding”. I have no idea what that involves, only that it is the right thing to do in cases of “upper shank bleeding”, whatever that is. Then of course there are all the police hand signals – you’d think that the sign for “go left” would involve some pointing in a general leftwards direction. Well it doesn’t…

Alarmingly there are also a surprising number of questions that relate to cars losing control of brakes or steering or falling into water. Obviously those are big concerns here.  That and honking at everything that moves (largely encouraged).

I think you’re probably getting the picture. The bottom line is you just have to learn the questions and answers as you have to score at least 90 out of 100 questions to pass. I’m feeling super smug as I managed 97%. Woo woo.

Now I have my licence – the good news is that it lasts six years, the better news is that it allows me to drive cars (no chance) and any sort of motorbike. Watch out Shanghai.



How hard can it be to get to Mexico anyway?

While on the subject of New Year – we were invited to see the new year in at Rocky Point in Mexico with friends. We happily accepted and vaguely planned to ride the bikes down from San Francisco. Actually I was really looking forward to the opportunity of riding through southern California – what I’d seen of it so far, the coastline down to Big Sur, was stunning. In any case we figured it would take about two days to ride down. It’s a case of heading to the border and turning right. No?

Then we actually got a map out. California is really rather deceptively long as it turns out. Door to door it was looking like approximately 900 miles. We’ve certainly ridden further in two days but on closer examination, the route along the small roads was going to take far too long. So now we were looking at a two day blast down the Interstate. Not fun.

Then we thought about it some more. While the border south of Phoenix isn’t the worst part of Mexico, you still don’t want to be crossing it at night. And you REALLY don’t want to be crossing at night on a bike. So we would have to spend the night on the US side then ride the last 250 miles or so in the morning. So now it would be a 2.5 day trip which would mean we’d have no time to actually BE there before turning round.

Somewhat disappointed we admitted that taking the bikes was not the way to go. We did have a hire car – so we could just drive that down to Mexico, potentially even in one go if we took turns – right? Wrong. Most car hire companies won’t allow you to take your car to Mexico (or take a driving test in it but that’s a different story).

Hmmm. Then we reasoned that a car rental joint nearer the border just HAD to allow you to cross it. We thought maybe we could bike/ drive to San Diego and take a car from there. That was a pretty good plan. The only thing is that rental companies in San Diego that allow you to take their vehicles into Mexico don’t see the need to rent cars. We could have hired a truck or a bus. Why would you not want to transport lots of people and/ or gear in and out of Mexico? Sigh.

This was harder than we thought. We nearly gave up but did eventually make it to Mexico – by flying in and out of Phoenix and renting a car there (mucho extra paperwork required including a promise to bring it back in one piece). Sheesh!

Once we made it to Rocky Point we had a great couple of days. We walked along the beach watching the pelicans fishing, tasted many different establishments’ finest margaritas but my favourite bit of all was visiting the port to watch the fishing boats come in.


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How to cure driving withdrawal

Giving up driving is tough – although being in the US has been a period of adjustment towards not driving. The US police stopped me pretty much ever time I went over 30 miles an hour so I started driving like a granny everyone else. That’s to say I stopped driving and started using a car to get from A to B.

Being totally without transport is cold turkey for a petrol head. They make it so difficult and expensive to get a motorcycle here that that option is off the table too. I had looked at the electric bicycles and scooters and left feeling pretty despondent – I’m used to over 100bhp at my disposal at the flick of my wrist and I think my toaster has more horsepower than these scooters. Urgh.

But as is proving to be such a regular occurrence in this country. I was wrong. Scooters and electric bicycles, no matter how puny their engines, are actually high occupancy vehicles and/ or freight vehicles.

It’s completely normal to see a family of four riding on a scooter. The father is at the front at the controls, the smallest child stands between his knees, the wife sits behind him and the second child is sort of sandwiched between the parents. Who needs a car? The traffic here is pretty crazy so it isn’t as if you get to go very fast anyway.

You also see a surprising amount of stuff piled onto bicycles, trikes and scooters. It seems that the motto is “where there’s a will there’s a way”. No pile of boxes to large apparently. Here’s the most I’ve seen on a wheeled vehicle so far:

To be fair they have a point –  this is significantly more than I could fit into any of the cars I’ve ever owned. I need to get one of those! Or maybe I should realise my dream of building a motorised sofa…


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Car rental that makes you mental

*Advance warning* rant to follow.

Over the last few months I’ve travelled to Europe a few times – each time hiring a car.  I have to say that car rental is one service where America is way ahead of the UK. I have travelled a great deal in the US and hired cars – mostly with a Avis where I have a preferred member card. On arrival at an airport I find the Avis bus, and the driver logs that I’m on the way. On arrival there’s a board which tells me where to find my car which already has all the contract details waiting in it. I get in and drive off. Many times on arrival in Chicago in the winter – I arrive at my car which has the engine running and the heating and bottom warmers on. Now that’s service.

The last few times I’ve arrived in the UK I’ve unfortunately used a different rental company. Despite similar preferred privileges I still need to wait in line for aaaages waiting for a bored and/or incompetent employee to laboriously process a significant amount of paperwork by hand. One one occasion I was told that I’d have to wait at least an hour for a car by some spotty oik who didn’t seem to think this was an issue (I went to another company – of course).

On return it is even worse. Coming back to London Heathrow the surly Eastern European car returns team don’t seem to appreciate that you probably have a plane to catch. Even if there are no other cars, they meander over impossibly slowly. There’s invariably a problem (some invented scratch that involves lengthy paperwork in their chaotic portacabin). Then, just as you think you are finally finished with them, the buses drive off just as you arrive at the door. Urgh.

These guys are particularly bad – but in general the service in the UK just isn’t up to the simplicity of car hire in the US. I don’t see why that should be – so come on chaps – sort it out!

I guess the one saving grace of the British hire companies is the cars. Nothing to rave about but they have nippy hatches and roomy diesels as opposed to the US offerings which make you feel like the missing Blues Brother and have an average of 4mpg. Also I know for a fact that the US chaps keep the PT Cruisers for people who are rude in the queue (I asked in case you are wondering 😉

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The Lotus Evora comes to the USA

Pert bottom

This week I was lucky enough to see a Lotus Evora – one of only two in the USA right now. It’s the first mid-engined 2+2 and the only car in its class to deliver a top speed of around 150mph, acceleration of 0-60 in under 5 sec AND impressive fuel consumption of around 30 mpg (that’s the smaller American gallons). I was curious to see how the Lotus motto of “add lightness” has translated into a car that can deliver those sorts of stats.

My first impression was that it is quite a looker – it’s what the love child of a Ferrari 430 and a Lotus Exige might look like. Muscular and purposeful whilst still managing to look sleek and elegant. The angular air vents on the bonnet make the stunning curves look masculine and somehow you forget there’s a back seat  – the shape just looks ‘right’.

The cabin itself was quite a surprise, not least of all because you can get in there easily. With the Elise, I’ve always felt like I belong to an exclusive club of people who can (relatively) elegantly enter and exit. The Evora has lower sills so pretty much anyone can join the club. Once you are sat inside the big shock is that it is actually really plush in there – padded (yes padded) seats and beautiful if somewhat off-puttingly bright red, stitched leather around the dash and centre console. All the shiny steel buttons are stylish and nicely finished (no more dodgy plastic switches!). There’s also quite a lot of kit for a Lotus  – aircon, touch display for sat nav, not to mention all the ipod/ Bluetooth connectivity you could wish for. This almost makes you forget that there’s all this space behind the front seats. Two more, beautifully upholstered seats in fact. Although like all other 2+2s, anyone who wants to sit in the back has to concertina themselves and sit sideways – which I did. And it was OK, but then I am quite bendy.


The visibility out of the back is astonishingly bad. The rear window is like one of those castle slit windows so it lets some light in but it is no good whatsoever for actually seeing what’s going on out there.  Frankly, George Clooney could be on the back topping up his tan and you’d be none the wiser. The Lotus answer to this is the optional parking camera.  I’m not convinced that’s the best solution.

One element that is notable for its absence is the start button. I’ve always thought this was a real toy for the boys. I don’t miss it at all.

So what about the engine? Lotus has gone back to Toyota for the engine – this time taking the 3.5l V6 used by Camrys. They’ve added some of their secret sauce though, squeezing almost 280 bhp out of it.

Enough of the features- how does it drive? Well the first impression is that this is much heavier than the Elise, so it felt like a really substantial car. The ride is a LOT softer too. I’m more than used to feeling every contour of each matchstick I run over, but I do appreciate something a little more forgiving, particularly on the dreadful roads round here.  The power delivery is fast and smooth, and the red line arrives surprisingly quickly, accompanied by much dashboard flashing ( I quite like that).  Unfortunately the test ride was short and didn’t really include much in terms of corners – however on even a short it was clear that that the usual Lotus road hold and cornering were all there. As for the brakes. OMG they were sharp. Used to the impressive anchors on the Elise, I don’t think I’ve ever got into another car and found the brakes better. In fact they were so amazing I imagine they’ll be detuned a bit for the full production version.

So all in all –I thought it was a really impressive car. All that experience of adding lightness has meant that Lotus could add some seriously luxe features whilst maintaining impressive performance. I’m a purist though so I still prefer my Elise but for those who like their luxury, the Evora is an awesome alternative for the 911 crowd – it’s just a but more special.

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Elysian wheels

I know I’ve done nothing but complain about the cars here, the driving, the roads etc …but there’s hope. I’m completely hopelessly in love with driving again. This is what it took:



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For the Americans out there: Car pedals 101

  • Lesson 1: The pedal on the left right (OMG I always thought that these brain melting conference calls were doing no good. Brain is truly melted. Must. Not. Try To. Edit. While. Listening) is the accellerator. You press it with your foot. If your bloated beast of a car is still moving at the pace of a sloth on valium, press it some more.
  • Lesson 2: This is not a footrest – the pedal in the middle is actually the brake. This is not to be used either when driving round corners (clue start the corner at the right speed) or when driving downhill (clue change to a lower gear).
  • Lesson 3: This is advanced stuff. Look at the one on the left. This is the clutch. Do not under any circumstances attempt to drive a car with one of these until you have fully grasped the concept of the hill start (clue this does not involve rolling backwards in any way).




Hello boys – the bra you wouldn’t catch me dead in

I’ve seen quite a few cars with a strange cover on the front end. I initially assumed it was the car repair version of a temporary crown – ie a short term  covering. It isn’t.


This is a car bra. Not designed as you might think to provide uplift or support to front heavy cars, rather it is designed to prevent against stone chips and bug juice on your bonnet. You can get some that wrap around the whole front end, or just the leading edge of the bonnet. Two things about this strike me:

1) the result is infinitely worse than the after effects of swarms of insects of lorry loads worth of stone chippings would cause. Presumably these people are keeping their cars nice but for what? It is like putting plastic covers on sofas you use.

2) the only cars you see these things on are the crappiest looking Toyotas or Nissans that are so astonishingly unattractive that it is  inconceivable that anyone would bother trying to protect them from bugs or chips or anything at all.

I found one for my car. Here’s what it would look like:


No chance.

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