Blog: Cars… Lots of Cars!

May 3, 2011 by  
Filed under Blog

The Hockenheim racing circuit, about an hour’s drive from Stuttgart, is home to one of two Formula One grand prix events that take place alternately in Germany. Apart from Formula One, the track also plays host to DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters), drag races as well as some high profile music events in the past, including Michael Jackson’s Bad World Tour and The Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge Tour.

Our first arrival at the circuit was on Saturday 30th April to catch some of the qualifying and practice sessions of the DTM and the Formula 3 races. Since it was a practice day, it wasn’t very heavily crowded, which was great as we got a chance to wander about the race village a get a look at some of the cars and teams that are participating in the various races being held.

As guests of Mercedes-Benz, we had access to their VIP lounge reserved for team principals, drivers and sponsors. The lounge was also the location for TV interviews with the MB drivers in various race categories. So we got a glimpse of Ralf Schumacher and David Coulthard, both former Formula One drivers now team mates in the DTM series.

On Sunday, the race village which extends around the circuit turned into a beehive of activity. As wisely suggested by our guide from AMG, we arrived at Hockenheim early in the day and managed to beat the crowds and traffic that were about to descend upon the venue.

Our first stop of the day was the Mercedes-Benz Experience area where a special track was set up to showcase the abilities of the Mercedes-Benz C-class on road and the off-road muscle of the G-class. We didn’t have to queue very long before we got a chance to get into a new generation C350 piloted by one of the expert drivers from Mercedes-Benz.

For the next five minutes, our driver took us through a myriad of driving situations ranging from fast lane changes, to high speed cornering and wet road stability. As the owner of a C350 myself, I was amazed by what my car could do. If only I had the skill (and nerve) to do it. Our driver made it all look quite easy – a great way to start the day though.

Since it was still early in the day, we swung by the VIP lounge to grab some coffee and some breakfast. While there, Bernd Schneider (4-time DTM champion) came by for an interview while David Coulthard worked his way through some coffee.

Ahmed and I had a chance to talk more about video game racing and his passion for them. I don’t believe I’ve met a person who swears by Gran Turismo as much. I would not be too far off the mark if I said that I was talking to Gran Turismo’s biggest fan in the Middle East. He prefers it because unlike most other racing games on the market, it is a near perfect simulation of each of the cars in the game. As the owner of a Nissan 370Z and previously a Nissan 350Z, a Honda CRX and a Mitsubishi 3000GT, Ahmad seems to have racing in his DNA.

Back out in the race village, we went up to the top of the Mercedes Tribune stand which is probably the highest point from which to view the race and also has a view of two of the best corners on the track. Between two events, Mercedes-Benz brought some of their AMG production vehicles as well as race cars onto the track as well as a classic SL that swung wildly around compared to the heavily kitted cars of today.

As our day drew to an end, on our way to Stuttgart airport, we reminisced about some of the best moments of the trip – the fantastic lay out of the museum, the journey through the history of automobiles and the way the AMG production line is organized.
Ahmed and I were still thinking about the flags of Kuwait and UAE flying at the Aafalterbach facility. AMG – RESPECT!

A big shout out to Mercedes-Benz and PlayStation Gulf for organizing the trip and taking care of everything except flying the planes.

Moral of the story: Play More Gran Turismo!!!

Where Were You When Kate & Will Got Hitched? Part II

May 2, 2011 by  
Filed under Blog, Picture Gallery, Spotlight

The second part (part one here) of our first day in Stuttgart came with a visit to the AMG facility in Aafalterbach. During the drive to AMG, I had a chance to ask Ahmad why he’s so good a Gran Turismo, given his history of winning competitions. He puts it down to the fact that despite having tried other racing games and on other consoles, nothing comes close to the realism that the GT series offers.

His competition success may also be attributed to the fact that he does not play racing games with a normal PlayStation controller but prefers to use a steering wheel – something tha came take some getting used to.

During the approach to the very non-descript AMG facility on Mercedesstrasse in Aafalterbach, my mind was filled with imagery of the different AMG beasts that had escaped onto the streets of Dubai. All of this came to a crashing halt as we stopped in front of the building we were about to enter.

We were greeted by two massive flags of Kuwait and the UAE that AMG had hoisted in honor of our arrival. Apparently, this is standard practice for VIP guests, of which there aren’t a lot. Both of us were deeply honored by this gesture and took a moment to digest it.

As a mechanical engineer, Ahmad was in for a treat at the AMG facility. We were however disappointed by the guide’s instruction to not take any pictures of the facilities we were about to tour.

Kicking off in the engineering manufacturing division, we got a chance to see what the mean when they say that every AMG engine is hand built by a single engineer, who stamps his name on the engine making every engine unique in some sense.

We were able to follow one engineer as he took a V8 engine from one stage of assembly to another. It is amazing to see the attention to detail and quality that is part of the AMG manufacturing process. Every part an engineer uses and every tool he uses is logged in a computer system. This allows AMG to analyze each engine’s build process – definitely helpful in the event of problems.

Each engine travels in a U-shaped path around the shop floor on a cart that the engineer pushes as he goes through the assembly process. The shop floor is relatively very quiet and not what you would expect of an engine assembly plant.

Post assembly, each engine goes through a cold test to ensure that all parts are working as the should. During the cold test it is not possible to measure or test the performance of the engine. This is done in a hot test, which has it’s ow area. Only a random selection of engines go through a hot test – one of the primary reasons being that it takes 4-5 hours to set up and test an engine. At this rate, AMG would not be able to churn out the number of engines they do in a feasible manner.

Did you know that the Mercedes SLS is the only car in Daimler’s history to be completely designed, developed and engine manufactured at AMG? For all other cars, AMG provides Ono engines.

Our next stop was the design and interior fit out section, where we got a glimpse of how a car interior can be customized for a customer using a variety of finishes, materials and colors. We even spied a C63 getting done up for a Middle Eastern customer. (The Arabic documents inside the car were a dead giveaway).

The AMG facility may be mistaken for a spa or retreat, except for the really nice cars around. A ver quiet facility, where workers are too busy with their work to loiter or chat.

We bid goodbye to our host and took one last look at the Kuwait and UAE flags. I left thinking about how much attention they must give to their cars if they would take the trouble of sourcing and hoisting the flags of visitors on the day of their visit.

While Will & Kate got married and kept the world enraptured for the whole day, Ahmad and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend a Friday in Germany.

On Saturday and Sunday we will head to the Hockenheim race circuit to enjoy some of Mercedes-Benz’s VIP hospitality and take in the sights and sounds of the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters, popularly known as DTM.

Check out the entire gallery from the trip in the next page.

Where Were You When Kate & Will Got Hitched? – Part I

May 1, 2011 by  
Filed under Blog, Picture Gallery, Spotlight

The twenty ninth of April will go down in history. It has been photographed, filmed, tweeted about, blogged about and documented in nearly all forms known to mankind. While 1.5 million people gathered on the mall in front of Buckingham Palace, an estimated 2 billion people watched the wedding of Prince William of Wales and Catherine Middleton on TV– the culmination of a fairy tale romance.

For Ahmed Al Azmi and me, this made no difference. Our mission was different. We are the recipients of some fine German hospitality, courtesy of Daimler AG. Ahmed earned his place on this trip by winning the Gran Turismo 5 Challenge organized by PlayStation Gulf. A native of Kuwait, Ahmed was also the winner of a previous GT competitions in 2005 and 2008, where he won a trip to Japan to the Nissan GTR test facility.

Is it coincidence or is he just very good at racing cars in Gran Turismo? His opponents may have an opinion, but the fact is that he is here and I have been presented the good fortune of accompanying him to document the trip.

It’s always a pleasure to see German efficiency at work and like clockwork our day 1 escort, the young Herr Kilian Thelen drove us to our first stop of the day.

Before I continue, let me preface it by informing you that both Ahmed and I are huge automobile enthusiasts. While Ahmed is more of a hard core techie when it comes to things on wheels, I am more a fan of form and function. So we had a fair balance of opinion on this trip.

So, with this in mind, I invite you to imagine our excitement at walking up the to the Mercedes-Benz Museum. The museum was quite busy on this Friday morning. Kilian was able to secure us entry and Wolfgang, a very knowledgeable guide.

The museum is designed such that in order to do the tour, one must travel to the top floor and then walk through the history of Mercedes-Benz, which might be mistaken to be a history of the automobile itself.

Wolfgang’s commentary was well paced and intersperse with some interesting trivia. During the banter, I discovered that Ahmad is more than just a video game racing enthusiast, but actually quite well versed in the functioning of motor car engines and technology.

For example, did you know that for a while in the late 19th century Peugeot cars used engines built under license from Gottlieb Daimler? Did you know that Daimler made motorcycles in the early days and was forced to make aircraft engines for the Germany military during the two world wars? In order to maintain brand awareness with the public, they made and sold bicycles.

Before we left, Ahmed and I got a chance to ride in one of the two racing simulators in the museum. The simulators took us on a visceral video race through Daimler’s racing history.

This was a bit of a disappointment for Ahmad who has been playing Gran Turismo video games since the first one that he played on his brother’s firs generation PlayStation.

The awesome tour had to come to an end, but not before we had been through five generations of Daimler’s automobile history that started at the beginning of motoring, through wars, economic crises and has adapted to changes in popular culture and technology.

More pictures in the next page.

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