Bristol Motor Club August AutoSolo

August 17th, 2007

For those who don't know, AutoSolo is a competitive motorsport event. Its a sort of cross between a slow Sprint and fast AutoTest minus the reversing sections. Americans run a similar style event called Autocross, not to be confused with grass track racing in the UK.

Competitors are only allowed to use road cars that have been driven to the event. Each car is timed around several tight courses made from cones. The total time for each car is added up with any penalties incurred for hitting cones, taking the wrong route and so on.

Having not driven competitively for over six months, my first run was a little on the enthusiastic side, with plenty of sideways action. I turned in a respectable time nonetheless, and pushed harder in the second run. Unfortunately the rigours of everybody's first efforts had taken its toll on a section of the tarmac, which had now turned to gravel. Hitting this whilst still overdriving sent me into a rapid spin, filling the car with clouds of dust. With my time spoiled I had fun sliding about on the remainder of the run, and resolved to tone it down for the rest of the day.

Toning everything down worked wonders for my times (it always does) and my next two goes were the fastest of anybody's on the same course. Despite that my overall time for the course was still beaten by the very experienced Carl Streatfield in his bright yellow Elise.

As the day progressed my lack of recent practice manifested itself in somewhat inconsistent times, although I had no more disastrous spins. Another couple of fastest individual runs put me first in class, although first place overall was taken by Carl who drove consistently well the entire day to end up just under 2 seconds ahead of my time.

It was an unusually busy day as a marshal too. In AutoSolo, the competitors take it in turn to marshal each others' runs, and on my first stint I was stood near the hairpin bend. You don't really expect to have to do much marshaling on a Solo. You just have to call in the odd penalty when people tap cones or go the wrong way. There's usually just about nothing to crash into, and cars run by themselves so shouldn't end up in collisions.

A tiny bike-engined Sylva Riot shot past and disappeared out of sight at the corner. After a few seconds I realised everything had gone suspiciously quiet and poked my head out expecting to see the car stalled and unable to restart. Instead I was greeted with the sight of a completely empty track. I briefly questioned if I'd imagined the car passing, before realising where it must have ended up - in the thick bramble bush on the left. I ran to help and found the car lodged right up to the wheels in brambles, but on the wrong side of the bush! It had found its way clean through a gap in the hedge and continued to turn until crashing into the back of the brambles. Thankfully the driver and car were both fine, although it took a little while to dig them out.

Later a Mini slowed in front of my marshal post and rolled to a stop on the grass next to me. After futile efforts to get it running again we had to push it back to the pits over rough grass. Quite a work out in the summer sun!

Overall the day went really very well, and everyone seemed to be smiling lots. I'm booked on the RosSolo for this Sunday, but entry will depend on getting a punctured tyre repaired in time. It seems I've picked up a big chunk of metal in the back left tyre somehow. The rubber I use isn't easily available anymore so I won't be getting a replacement. With a bit of luck I'll be able to get the carcass repaired at a local garage however.

I took lots of photos at the event. Zips of the better ones are available below. Some of the expressions on the competitors faces are well worth the download! Some of the images of the tyres undergoing tarmac-torture are pretty impressive too. I took video of my runs as well, and I'll post these in another article soon.

Best photos (9mb zip)
Other good photos (37mb zip)
Official results (pdf)

Driving tips for the terminally stupid

August 16th, 2007

Its a speed camera, not a slow camera. It goes off only if you speed past it. There's simply no need to panic brake to 15mph for them.

So many legs

June 27th, 2007

Just snapped this monstrous horror in my bathroom.

Why do these things love bathrooms so much? You'd think with the daily steam from the shower and the general cleanliness that it would be a hostile environment with little food.

Every morning and evening my motorbike is covered in new webs too. Not from such enormous terrors as the bathroom beastie above, but well made webs across the mirror stalks, handlebars and behind the windshield. Again, you'd think that the 70mph+ winds and vibrations it generates daily would be enough to put them off or at least shred the webs, but no.


Glastonbury Omen

June 19th, 2007

Given the sort of rain I just rode home in, I'm glad I'm not going to the Glastonbury Festival this weekend. The sky was sunny and the roads were bone dry when I left the office, and I was enjoying the ride. Then within seconds the hardest rain I've seen in a very long time appeared and the roads flooded. Proper rivers of water running down them!

My visor was impossible to see through, so I opened it a fraction. That was a mistake! Water shot in and I still couldn't see anything. The rain hitting my arms and chest through my bike armour was heavy enough to actually sting.

5 minutes of amazing thunder and its all over. The sky is blue. The ground has reappeared and the birds are singing.

Crash damage

June 17th, 2007

See how well your car performs in crash tests with this handy website. Videos of lots of American models here, although lots are the same as in Europe but with different names:

The surprising things to note here are the front impacts are at 40mph, and the side impact sled is moving at 30mph. Think back to when you were last driving at 30mph. Didn't feel all that fast, did it? Watch how far the dummies recoil inside the vehicle.

The footage of the rear passengers are what I expected to go through in my recent crash experience just before we were actually hit. See the way the glass explodes around the cabin, and how the dummy's head always hits the trim or side-airbag hard. That tells me my experience was considerably slower than the 30mph impact in the videos, since the windows didn't break and my head didn't hit anything.

My stiff neck and back have cleared up now, but my dad's back has just got worse over the week, and he's having trouble standing up now. The car that hit us is a write-off as expected. No news on my parents' car yet, but it is with the repairers.

Four fixes and a demolition

June 17th, 2007

I've been doing my bit to battle ever-increasing entropy of broken things this week. I've repaired some stuff, and broken some stuff. Overall net gain is positive, which makes for a nice change!

1. Fixed the alternator back onto a friend's car. It had sheered its bolts and required creative bodgery to sort out.

2. Fixed a friend's laptop. Usually this would mean I wiped out the viruses and configured a firewall, but this fix involved cutting, glue and soldering. The power connector socket had been broken right off the motherboard and required creative bodgery to repair.

3. Opened a combination lock for a friend who had forgotten the number. I had brought a mini die grinder and some safety goggles along to solve the problem destructively. It turned out to be such a poor lock that I was able to pick it in about 20 seconds, to my friend's endless amazement. That was the first lock I've ever picked. What looked like magic to my friend was actually just a creative and bodgy application the way locks work.

4. Fixed the brakes on my car. The bracket holding the calliper on was bent by a clumsy garage monkey. The damage wasn't apparent until long after when the disks started rusting in funny places. The bent bracket can't be removed without dismantling the hub which means destroying the bearing. A bit of creative bodging with an air-powered angle grinder* and the hub had a new slot to get the bracket through. Application of the Standard Lotus Component Editing Tool (big hammer) and the bracket is a decent approximation of 'straight'.

Demolition. My alarm clock was already on thin ice having failed to wake me up earlier in the week. Sure, there was a power cut, but that shouldn't be enough to make an alarm clock fail. An alarm clock has one basic function - to make an annoying sound at a particular time until an off button is pressed. If that means it has to have a small rechargeable battery inside to cope with power cuts, so be it. To hell with the expense, have a battery backup and people won't be needlessly late for work.

Anyhow, Friday morning and it goes off at the right time. But the off button won't shut it up. In fact, I tried every button and I couldn't stop the intolerable noise. In my sleepy irrationalism the only solution was to beat the obnoxious device to death by bashing it into the floor repeatedly.

This isn't the first time I've had to kill an alarm clock for not shutting up when turned off. I had a cunning helicopter alarm thing. The idea was that it spun up and released a set of propeller blades that flew off and landed in a random location. It would sound the alarm until the blades were found and returned to the base unit, by which time you were certainly awake.

This was a brilliant concept, but the implementation was abysmal. The clock kept terrible time, which fails the first part of its basic function - the particular time bit. Then the clock took to firing off the blades again as soon as they were returned to the base unit, instead of shutting up. That failed the last part of its basic function. Nothing my sleepy brain could do would make it shut up so it too was beaten until quieted.

The moral of the story? Don't piss people off with your user interface design. Especially when they're sleepy.

* I know of absolutely no better tool in existence than the air angle-grinder. I've yet to meet a problem in life that can't be solved with the suitable application of angle grinding.


June 9th, 2007

I was just in a car crash.

My mum was driving, my dad in the passenger seat and me behind him. A girl in another car was distracted by her crying baby and didn't slow down entering the mini roundabout we were three-quarters of the way across. We got hit directly in the rear door (where I was sat). The car spun a quarter turn to the left and we ended up fully on a large pavement in front of a pub.

I saw the collision coming, but couldn't do anything about it. That's a fairly horrid feeling, one I've had before when seeing other people crash on the roads. I saw the other car loom quickly on my door and prepared myself to get hurt. I actually thought "this is going to hurt", and started to shift away from the door expecting to get punched by it. I didn't get far before the bang.

Very quickly, before we'd even spun, I was aware that I hadn't actually hit the door with any part of my body. I didn't have a faceful of glass and I was basically uninjured. This was a pleasant surprise at the time, and I think helped keep me fully lucid throughout the rest of the experience.

I sat for a few seconds trying to work out what I should be doing. I'd been in the worst position in the car for injury and wasn't hurt, so I guessed my parents wouldn't be seriously injured. My mum was in tears already so I got out and tried to comfort her. My dad was in silence. A crowd emerged from the pub to help.

I was vaguely aware that the other car had stopped pretty much where it had crashed. The driver then moved it out of the junction and stopped at the roadside. She got out and didn't look obviously injured from where I was, so I let her be for a minute. She was shaken and tearful too and had her 10 week old baby with her. We found out later both were physically fine too.

We'd swapped details and were all still rather shaken, when a police van drove past. And I mean drove past. The front passenger looked directly at me and the damaged vehicles, then the van just carried on into the night. I'd have at least expected them to stop and find out if anyone was injured.

A little after that, an ambulance car drove past. And again, I mean drove past. Things were a touch more orderly by then with the worst of the glass swept up and most of the crowd dispersed. Still, I'd have expected them to stop for a quick check too really. Even if just to shout "is everyone OK here" to someone.

So much for the emergency services. How did the car do? Rather well really. I inspected the damage, and it had a tyre deflated. The marks on the road showed that it probably came off when the car landed from its brief flight. Both the side doors that got hit were obviously deformed on the outside, but both had the glass intact and zero visible damage inside. Both still opened, shut and latched perfectly. After the spare was fitted the car drove the short distance home without any obvious problems. What an amazing testament to modern car design!


May 27th, 2007

Quad bikes make no sense. I know this because I rode one yesterday on a bumpy off-road track (the image above isn't me). They're not quite cars, not quite bikes. Seems like you get the worst of both.

  • Four wheels like a car, but handlebars like a motorbike. Throttle like neither
  • They roll out of corners like a car but you lean in as if you're on a bike. You get steering results like neither
  • You get a seat, but to sit on it is to be kicked off at the first bump
  • You can stand up if you're brave, but your legs then become the shock absorbers
  • They have the vulnerability of a bike with the wide footprint of a car
  • You can fall off like a bike, and spin out like a car

What a silly form of transport!

I'll go no more a roving

May 20th, 2007

Over the last few years it has become increasingly difficult to get anywhere in Britain. Trains are vastly overpriced and unpleasant. Buses are worse. Cars can hardly move on motorways for all the traffic and restrictions.

Specifically, it seems hardest to be near London. In the last three trips that way, I've had expensive unexpected car-related bad stuff happen. They're all partially my fault, but none of them feel very fair either.

  • Received a parking fine for a rule I didn't know about and which is only enforceable in certain parts of London. Plenty of other parking was available, but the position I chose kept the car out of other people's way the best. I was penalised for being considerate.
  • Running out of fuel might sound entirely my fault, but I've since proven that the gauge was over-reading by 10 litres (quarter of a tank).
  • In yesterday's jaunt around the M25, I got flashed by an overhead gantry speed camera whilst doing 76mph in a derestricted zone (limit 70mph). Yes, I'm aware that speeding is an absolute offence and that I'm therefore guilty. Given the amazing displays of dangerous incompetence I witness everyday on the road however, penalising 7% over the speed limit in perfect conditions doesn't seem entirely fair. The penalty charge isn't all that significant but the impact on future insurance costs lasts up to 5 years.

There's a chance that I won't get a NIP from the camera incident. The M25 cameras never used to penalise unless one of the temporary lower limits were in force, so if nothing has changed maybe the camera was malfunctioning or a lower limit was introduced exactly as I drove under the gantry. Cameras can also be confused by two vehicles passing at once (which happened in my case) or by vibrating surfaces in the camera's view.

Whatever the outcome, it is abundantly clear that London simply doesn't want me anywhere near it. I won't push the issue. I'm never going back if I can possibly help it.

Shiny shiny; Shiny boots of rubber

May 12th, 2007

Lou Read sung the title. Well, almost. But he probably wasn't singing about his new motorbike tyres.

I have cause to sing about mine though. What with the new tyres having a round cross-section rather than the worn-flat shape of the old ones, the bike will actually tip into corners now. It didn't like being leant over before and was constantly trying to stand up. Now it just sits where its put. It's way more sensitive to my inputs and feels lighter and flickable.

My new spark plugs and caps have been delivered as well. If it stops raining for 10 minutes I'll fit them and they'll make the thing run properly when it's damp.

It'll be faster and will handle properly. I won't know how to ride it anymore!