Wednesday, 27 September 2017

True driving roads of Snowdonia

Considering its reputation for rain, you’d be forgiven for dismissing a topless tour of North Wales, however when it comes to driving roads Snowdonia really delivers...

Miles upon miles of roads uncoil themselves as they thread through blue-grey mountains, through sweeping bends and impossibly tight apexes. In places, rock thrusts from the ground as if it had forced itself through a carpet of alpine-esque trees; dropping away to vast valleys, torrents of water forming streams and picturesque waterfalls, such as those at Betws-Y-Coed.

If it’s a drive through stunning scenery you’re after, you won’t be disappointed, (notwithstanding any fog) the scenery is as dramatic as it is beautiful.

You have to be careful though... unforgiving slate walls line the road a mirror’s width away and oncoming traffic, wide lorries in particular, remind you that wherever you are, you are peddling around 'main' roads - motorways and bypasses conspicuous by their absence.

Traffic can be either slow or heavy at peak times, worse still wheezy caravan-laden work horses can provide miles of tedious trundling. Still, such is the risk on truly involving A-roads with minimal straight stretches offering the possibility to overtake.

Plumping for an early, summer morning blast is favourite here; although don’t necessarily expect warm sunny weather, Welsh rain somehow seems heavier than most.

There are hazards, yes, a lack of signage when you need it - an over abundance when you don't and the odd errant sheep wandering into your path having escaped from a nearby field, but these are small fry... There are so many roads round here, each as breath taking as the last and nearly all equally unpronounceable.

It’s pushing on through these mountainous roads that, given the right car and conditions you can reach a state of driving Nirvana. With the benefit of choice, here it has to be a manual box. If you’re so inclined, a slick flappy-paddle system follows an acceptable second; but it is swapping cogs through a series of bends that really makes this type of drive shine, a gentle blip on downshift and a crackling exhaust fully add to the drama; I’d admit that a fun and fizzy car such as the excellent Fiesta ST, or Mini Cooper S feels incredibly at home here.

Focus RS
Focus RS

I took on the drive in one of my favourite cars of the last two years, the Ford Focus RS. This is a car I advocated so strongly that I managed to convince myself (and more importantly Mrs. G) to put my money where my mouth is and order a signature ‘Nitrous Blue’ example at the start of the year; siting the Focus practicality and inherent modern day safety kit that propped the RS as a ‘sensible’ daily driver.

Focus RS
Focus RS

I’ve got to know Snowdonia relatively well over the last decade or so; my wife’s parents living within a short hop of Snowdon itself has afforded me some fantastic drives and great memories too.

I have to admit that I approached the trip with both excitement and trepidation, had the car not measured up I’d undoubtedly be devastated. My fears however were for naught. As I progressed through the hills and valleys, the car came alive; playfully popping and banging on each lift of the throttle, glued to the tarmac and changing direction as if seeking out a golden-snitch. It was one of those moments where nothing else mattered – pure escapism, a perfect drive through an impossible landscape. Better still, when you’ve parked up and enjoyed it all, you can turn around and do it all again.

Also in the area: If you get the time also try the A470 between Snowdon and Brecon too, it’s nothing short of incredible and the drive from North to South takes in some of the best views Wales has to offer.

Michael Gates

Cornwall in a Convertible

Following on from our recent "Scenic Drives" post from our friends at Design 911, it got me thinking about some of the more memorable drives I've taken on holiday in the UK and one area which particularly stands out is the South West - in particular the pointy bit of Cornwall.

Back in the days of yore, before the patter of tiny feet necessitated the purchase of something a tad more practical, I was the proud owner of a Fiat Barchetta - to my mind one of Turin's most distinctive and delightful creations of recent times and a car I loved - sometimes literally - to pieces.

The Fiat Barchetta - the 'Little Boat'

Surprisingly practical, the 'Little Boat' was more than up to the task of swallowing enough luggage for two and regularly found itself pointed in a south-westerly direction in the Summer as the missus and I set off on another trip to a part of the country by which we are genuinely taken.

Cornwall is a county to which the tourist is naturally drawn - a good few undoubtedly to the sandy beaches, ice creams, sunshine and surfing to be found on the southern coast, whilst others - and I'd include myself in this - revel in the landscape and the landmarks both natural and man-made to be found in this spectacular part of the world.

Probably one of the best known and regularly-frequented attractions in Cornwall is Land's End. With its diametrically-opposed cousin at the extreme North East of the UK - John O' Groats - it's (in)famous for being the start/finish line for countless charity journeys over the years and enjoys a degree of hype that's been capitalised on by its opportunistic owners who have turned it into - in my humble opinion at least - something of a tacky theme park.

Suffice it to say that it's one of those places that I'm glad to have visited but was even more glad to head away from..

Which brings us to the point of this rambling essay, because as referenced above, one of the top scenic drives suggested by our friendly Stuttgart sportscar afficionados was the coastal route up to St Ives which, appropriately-enough begins at Lands End.

Heading up the B3306 and running parallel with the rugged coastline I can well recall a mixture of open, sweeping and flowing roads with plenty of opportunities for straight-lining well-sighted S-bends. Yet conversely in places the road is challenging and tight, high hedgerows and wind-blown trees rising above you as you negotiate the more testing and twisty sections.

With the sun shining and the little Fiat's easily-stowed roof hibernating under its solid cover behind us, the joy of driving this road - and indeed pretty much all of Cornwall's country lanes was enhanced a hundredfold as the sounds and smells of the countryside sharpened the senses - helping to paint an ever more vivid picture of this stunning and beautiful part of the world.

Despite being left hand drive, the Barchetta wasn't really any more difficult to pilot around Cornwall than its omnipresent rival the MX5, and whilst overtaking could sometimes require a certain degree of faith in one's co-pilot -"anything coming.?" being an oft-posed question from the left seat - the benefit of being closer to the edge of narrow lanes helped immeasurably when trying to squeeze past oncoming caravans/tractors/milk trucks on some of the more 'breathe-in' stretches.

There's plenty to see along the coast as you wind your way towards St Ives - the view of the sea tempting you to stop and and find a vantage point either up on the headlands or down at one of the little coves nestling away between the granite outcrops where land meets sea in quite spectacular fashion. Either way, there are ample opportunities to stop and take it all in, perhaps whilst clutching the ubiquitous pasty - examples of which seem to be available at every outpost of civilisation throughout Cornwall (this is not a complaint by the way).

Whether you're out to enjoy a spirited jaunt or happy to kick back & amble along taking in the scenery, the journey along the north-westerly tip of Cornwall is a must for anyone with petrol/diesel/electrons flowing through their system. And if you're lucky enough to be in possession of a rag top in the Summer sunshine, you're guaranteed to have a smile on your face as you rock up in St Ives having gained a healthy tan into the bargain..

Dave Wakefield

Monday, 25 September 2017

Five best scenic drives in a convertible in the UK

If you’re lucky enough to own a convertible car, then you will know how fantastic it is having the wind in your hair and the sun on your back as you hit the open road.

Here in the UK, we’re lucky enough to have some fantastic scenic drives on our doorstep, through mountain crescents, rolling fields and long stretches of road, allowing you to really open up your vehicle and make the most of your road-trip.

The car experts at Design 911 have listed their 5 top scenic drives in the UK that will make you want to pack up and drive off into the distance.

1. Kendal To Keswick, Lake District
This 30-mile stretch in the Lake District National Park is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful drives that England offers. This slightly more winding drive gives off some fantastic views along the way, including views of Lakeland fells and Lake Windermere and Lake Thirlmere. Why not stop off at the Lakes and get a real Cumbrian experience by staying over in a cosy B&B and visiting Lake Windermere for a long meandering ramble in the day. 

2. The Northumberland Coast
The coastline of Northumberland was given the title of Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1958 and it’s easy to see why. The Northumberland Coastal route takes you along some stunning areas including many eclectic towns and villages. From Seaton Delaval you can head north and visit Alnwick and then follow the 35 mile coastal drive route from Alnmouth to Lindisfarne. This route is the perfect drive in September, when the tourist crowds are dwindling and the late summer sun is still shining. 

3. Land's End to St Ives
It’s no secret that Cornwall offers some jaw-dropping coastal views and cliffs, which many roads are very close to, offering a ‘hairs standing up on the back of your neck’ moment. One of the more enjoyed routes is the drive from the famous Land’s End to the superbly quintessential English beach town of St Ives. The road wanders up and down dales, and into dramatic countryside scattered with ancient stone walls and farmhouses which really give off that rugged Cornish feel, enough to make you feel like you’re on the set of Poldark.

UKMT's Dave Wakefield enjoys the Cornish experience too - see Cornwall in a convertible

4. Beddgelert To Betws-Y-Coed, Snowdonia
Snowdonia is one of the most diverse and beautiful areas of the UK, so it’s no surprise that it has made the top 5 drives. One of the country’s most scenic drives is the run along the A498 from Beddgelert, past two lakes, Llyn Dinas and Llyn Gwynant, and up the Nanat Gwynant Pass and into Snowdonia, finishing at the fantastic Swallow Falls at Betws-Y-Coed. Why not stay in Betws-Y-Coed village for a few nights to experience the real Wales and enjoy some fantastic walks up mount Snowdon.

UKMT's Michael Gates also makes the most of the Snowdonian roads

5. Inverness to Nairn Circular, Scotland
Scotland offers some truly stunning natural beauty and rugged terrain, and those who have been lucky enough to visit beforehand will know how great it is to drive around. One of the more enjoyable routes is the impressive two-day drive starting at Inverness which takes in the dramatic coast alongside Lossiemouth before heading inland past some wonderful castles, as well as heading into the Cairngorms National Park which can be enjoyed on foot if you fancy taking a break from the drive. 

Piece brought to you by the experts at

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

An all-round view of F1

If you're a fan of F1 then you'll almost certainly have spotted the name and branding of TATA Communications strategically-located in and around the circuits.

As well as being a technical partner of the all-conquering Mercedes team the telecommunications arm of the vast Indian conglomerate is also - and I'll quote this verbatim given the degree to which Formula1 and its various corporate acolytes like to exercise control over these things - the 'Official Connectivity Provider' in addition to being the "Official Web Hosting And Content Delivery Network Provider Of".

So there.

Anyway, being pretty cutting-edge, the clever boys and girls at TATA have been working with their counterparts at Formula 1 on enhancing the 'show' for the viewer and their latest wheeze has seen them experimenting with 360 degree live video feeds from a race - specifically the recent high-value stock-car smashup that was the Singapore Grand Prix - good timing..

Now, whilst 360 degree video is a relatively new technology it has been available in a number of forms for a few years now - most recognisably in videos available on Youtube where the viewer can pan and tilt the camera either in their browser or Youtube app or alternatively by donning one of the ever-increasing number of virtual-reality headsets whose complexity ranges from a cardboard affair into which one slips their smartphone, right up to the high-end, high-definition devices which imbue the wearer with a sense that he or she has just stepped off the set of the latest Star Wars epic..

Either way, the technology is starting to mature and this hasn't gone unnoticed by - amongst others - the aforementioned  Formula 1/TATA partnership & whilst other sporting events have dallied with this emerging applied science, their output has been limited - for technical reasons - to a delayed feed, (typically by 30 seconds) which isn't really ideal if you're wanting to convey an immersive, live atmosphere to those who weren't able to make it to the event being relayed.

So, the boffins at TATA got their collective thinking caps on and managed through some form of electronic witchcraft to live stream the recent carbon fibre-strewn proceedings in real time through a pair of 360 degree cameras; one being located in the paddock and the other trackside, so, conceivably you could have followed the fractious relationship between Sebastian Vettel and his team mate from 'racing incident' to recriminations and huffiness back at the team motorhome..

At the moment, this experiment in all-round visuals is being treated very much as a proof of concept and we're probably a few years away from being able to take control of the camera angles from the comfort of our own sofas, but rest-assured - this is a technology which will come into its own within the next decade as the infrastructure and demand for it become ever more pervasive. As mentioned above, Formula 1 is keen to improve the spectacle of the events it stages, not least in the face of increasingly lower audience share and it will undoubtedly see this toe-in-the-water-exercise as a step towards offering the service - perhaps as an additional cost package - in the not-too-distant future.

In this era of video on demand and timeshift recording capability, the consumer is becoming ever more used to deciding what he and she..consumes..and for the die-hard F1 fan, the ability to be able to call the shots is one which I feel will be pretty attractive.

Even with the drop off in viewing figures in recent years, subscription viewing numbers remain fairly healthy and if a value-added service such as TATA and F1 have just trialled is rolled out for a relatively cost-effective fee I wouldn't be willing to bet against it becoming a popular option for those who want a bit more from their F1 involvement.

Watch this (3D) space I guess..

Dave Wakefield

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

All Change!! - F1's musical chairs

Over this last weekend, Singapore appeared to be turning into a glittering high rise rail terminus so common were the cries of "all change" in a veritable waterfall of announcements from the majority of F1 teams.

So, continuing my watery analogy, let's try to fathom out the extent of the flood.

Starting with unpicking the driver moves, as ever there are far too many talents for too few seats.

Mercedes have re-signed Bottas but only for 1 year which gives both parties options for 2019.

This especially apt as Kimi has also done a 1 year deal with Ferrari for what will probably be his last season in F1, leaving a very desirable seat that many will look towards.

Massa, having already retired from Williams once before, will probably step aside at the end of 2017 in favour of a younger hotshoe.

The principal question is where does Alonso go? Will the engine change chez McLaren persuade the double World Champion to stay on for possibly another rebuilding year? Or will he be persuaded that the Renault engine is ready now? Fernando says he's waiting for more info before deciding. I believe he will want a chance at a 3rd Championship in a 'red car', so will wait a year before moving.

I am reminded of those motor sport historians who reckon Stirling Moss could have won several championships had his car and engine choices been better or luckier, whereas Fangio always seemed to sign for the right team, with the right car and engine, at the right time.

Luck or judgement?

Meanwhile, it looks like Jolyon Palmer is out of Renault to be replaced by Carlos Sainz. Will there be another slot for a talented driver with poor luck? Only his wily dad will know what irons are currently in the metaphorical fire.

Dutch Photo Agency/Red Bull Content Pool

It looks like the very patient Pierre Gasly will step up from years as Red Bull test driver to a Toro Rosso drive.

Perez has re-signed at Force India, but his team mate may yet change, and I expect some changes in the sponsorship arrangements. You can only sell so much beer to finance your team.

The merry-go-round has many revolutions yet to go before the 2018 grid is settled.

On the engine front, the biggest change is the (not entirely unexpected) split - by mutual consent - of McLaren and Honda. After 3 dire seasons where the once great team and engine supplier have both lost considerable face, it is certainly a more important loss to Honda than for the recently installed tough Executive Director of McLaren, Zak Brown.

Into McLaren comes Renault with an engine deal of promised parity with the Renault works team. An engine that looks like it should revive McLaren's fortunes. It is hoped that this will push the orange cars way up the grid, the Honda power unit being by far the weakest component in an otherwise strong McLaren this year.

Honda will go off to power Toro Rosso, but I think this will be a rebuilding year for a demoralised Honda before they do a long term deal with Red Bull.

Red Bull are also rumoured to be in talks with Porsche as an engine supplier, or perhaps the highly profitable sports car maker will even buy the whole team. It can afford to, and retain Horner and both drivers, perhaps in 2019..? This would allow Red Bull (the drinks company, not the team) to reduce its huge spend to that of a sponsor.

Ferrari had a lousy weekend, and there are clearly political machinations again. I suspect a change in senior management is imminent.

Philip Platzer/Red Bull Content Pool

Aston Martin, which is currently closely linked with Red Bull, have been rumoured to want to either set up or buy a team. Their MD, while at first reluctant to comment, then offered in a grid interview with DC that they were looking closely at the 20/21 engine regulations and were confident they could produce a package. With a lot of Arabian money in the mix, we could well see Aston Martin on the grid in 2021. Let's hope they are more successful than the disastrous Jaguar entry of a decade ago.

So as the teams head to Malaysia, expect more team, driver and engine announcements to come. Just bear in mind, through all the speculation, that to be successful, any team needs to have available the mighty resources that brought Mercedes to the top. Even the smallest teams have budgets in excess of £100million.....

Graham Benge

Monday, 18 September 2017

"Was it Bill or was it Ben?" - F1's Singapore scrap

OK, so you have to be my age to understand the title reference, but Sunday's three-way tie for the Singaporean scrapyard will run on for the rest of the season and may well be the championship decider.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

So who was to blame?

Given that the total bill for two scrapped Ferraris, and a scrapped Red Bull, is circa £10 million, if they were insured it would certainly NOT be regarded as a no fault accident!

Well, there seem to be several schools of thought...

  • Was it a pure racing accident with no blame to attach?
  • Did Kimi's rocket start cause it?
  • Did Max's reluctance to be squeezed out and his failure to brake when squeezed make it inevitable?
  • Did Seb's swerve to his left lead to the smash?

Actually, after several viewings it's probably (at least partially) 'yes' to all of the above! So, it's a racing accident...

BUT, that is not the first time a rather reckless swerve by Seb to protect a position has caused an accident.

There are parties in, or recently exiting, the pit lane who will suggest that perhaps Sebastian Vettel, a worthy four-time champion, has a little of the darker more ruthless elements of Michael Schumacher about him at times.

So, no penalty then for any of the drivers, but all three were called in to the stewards, and hopefully all were given a real warning about driving standards.

They all know accidents are many times more survivable in the latest F1 cars. A decade ago that accident could easily have led to two or even three deaths or life changing injuries.

Let's hope all three learn from Sunday's shambles.

Graham Benge

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Goodwood Revival - Further after thoughts

The second most often heard question I am asked at Goodwood - after "Where is Stirling Moss?" - is some variant on "How is" or "Where is Murray Walker?".

Again, a founding supporter of the Goodwood motor sport events, and widely known as "the voice of Formula 1", Murray is now nearly 94, and has not been to Goodwood this or last year. His health is not so good.

He still makes frequent TV appearances, they are all now filmed at his home, and he is as witty, incisive and perceptive as ever. Apparently he is also as prone to the odd gaffe as he ever was, but now, unfortunately for us, because they are recorded pieces, they are usually edited out.

I have known and talked to Murray for well over 25 years and he is one of most engaging people I have ever met.

I spent a couple of hours trapped in a location catering van in a rainstorm with just Murray as company. Two survivors of a downpour that obliterated the event we were both at. He was that day - one I will long remember - charming, friendly, knowledgeable thoughtful observant and provocative in equal measures.

The man whose adrenalin rush delivery made it sound "like a man with his trousers on fire" is calmer and even more charming to just chat with.

Over the years I have spent much time in his company and enjoyed every moment of that time.

For many many years to come, we will hear his voice on the TV coverage of F1. But, for many who met the man himself at Goodwood, and drew such warmth from his company, it is a lesser place without him.

Perhaps next year's Revival theme should be "the Murray Walker years"? There is certainly plenty of scope there!!!

Join me in wishing Murray good health and hope we may see him again soon.

Graham Benge

Goodwood Revival - After thoughts

This year's Goodwood Revival was different in many ways to the previous 19 I've attended...

The most striking way for me was the absence of many of the legends that I have talked to so often over the years, some that I consider friends.

In recent times we have lost John Surtees, Jack Sears and many others of that generation of racers who were active during what is often regarded as the golden age of motor sport.

There are others whose advancing age and infirmity has meant they can no longer come and add to the Goodwood events in person, events they helped create and evolve, and make the global successes that they are.

Over the weekend, one of the questions that I heard being asked many times, indeed including many times when it was asked of  me; "Where is Stirling Moss?"

I have been interviewing Sir Stirling for nigh on 30 years, and consider both him and Lady Susie as friends. At nearly 88, his health has not been good since his illness in Singapore last December.

I spoke to Susie a week or so before Revival, and she said that, sadly, Stirling was not fit enough to attend. It was good to subsequently hear that, even on the Friday morning of the event, he had still wanted to come!

As patron and one of the founders of the Goodwood Revival, he has only previously missed one event in 19 years, and that was through illness.

His willingness to talk to everyone, to sign endless autographs, to lend his great personality to the proceedings, and to charm everyone who encountered him, has made the event what it has become.

Not only have I enjoyed interviewing such a perceptive observer of both the events of his time, and the current scene, but I valued the long sometimes meandering chats, often before and after the formal interviews.

Perhaps the inevitable gradual passing of the generation who actually raced in period at Goodwood will alter, perhaps detract from, the events which they have championed for a quarter century.

For me the presence of such legends made the Goodwood Festival of Speed and Goodwood Revival the global events they have become, their absence for me could reduce those events in stature. It will be interesting to see how the vacuums they have left are filled.

I earnestly hope we shall see both Stirling and Susie back at Goodwood. If not those questions will continue to be asked for many years yet, such is the power of Stirling's legend.

Graham Benge

Monday, 11 September 2017

TVR Griffith Launched at Goodwood Revival

So here it is; the latest offering from TVR.

Revealed at Goodwood’s Earls Court Motorshow, at the aptly named Revival, the brand new Griffith boasts a (tantalisingly close to 500bhp) 480bhp 5-litre V8 borrowed from Mustang and fettled by Cosworth.

TVRs of old were… well… a bit of a handful. Not particularly famed for their sophistication but always, in the most brilliantly British way, absolutely bonkers. The Sagaris was maybe the best example of this; exhausts projecting sideways out of the rear bumper as if the rest of the car was fighting to keep the powerplant under the body. Then there’s the noise, a baleful wail; a jet-fighter of a car you always heard coming before you saw it – streaking past as a ballistic, flip-painted blur.

The new ‘Tiv’ results in a bit of a quandary. It both needs to be and can’t be more of the same. It’s 2017 now and times have moved on.

When the last of the previous TVRs rolled off of the production line and out the door in 2012, the quirky foibles were only borderline acceptable and the bi-polar drive meant that the throttle acted more like a mood switch that when provoked, could end up with you watching as lamp-posts and scenery switched sides. It wasn’t great news if you did have an ‘off’ either. Despite its rawness and its failings, we ended up loving it all the more.

But that was then and this is now.

Drivers, especially those paying around £90k expect more and the TVR will have to deliver if it is to be anything other than very niche or produced only for the 500 early-adopters due to see their new Griffith in 2019.

Retaining all the character and heritage whilst producing a thoroughly modern sports-car will be one hell of a challenge and one their engineers have been working on since 2013.

The new TVR will be quick, there, there is no doubt; 400ish bhp per tonne will allegedly catapult the car in sub-4 seconds to 62mph and topping out at 200mph – proper supercar stats, but without all the AWD electronic trickery that allows mere mortals the ability to progressively pedal around offerings from the likes of Audi or Lamborghini, and arguably removing some of the fun. Instead the car will employ an all-new carbon fibre bonded body and chassis, 50/50 weight distribution and, refreshingly, a six speed manual box. Undoubtedly not the quickest way to swap cogs, but arguably far better for driver involvement.

It’s good looking too if not outlandish, with definite ques from past models, but with a splash of AMG SLR, F-Type, Maserati and [G1] Corvette thrown in for good measure. It’s good to see the signature handle-less doors make a re-appearance too. The interior has also evolved, but as with niche sports-cars and TVR in general, it is clear that certain bits of switchgear have been borrowed from other vehicles. The keen-eyed will notice the steering column, switchgear and air vents all borrowed from the outgoing Fiesta.

We haven’t driven it yet – TVR themselves aren’t running the car here at Goodwood Revival, but with so much invested, there is no doubt that success will be make or break. Meanwhile, we’ll be first in line for the keys.

Michael Gates

Sunday, 10 September 2017