Wills and Kate… and that Aston!

As if the Duke of Cambridge wasn’t lucky enough to have married his beautiful Duchess, he then got to pootle about in his dad’s stunning Aston Martin DB6 Volante.

After the incredible scenes from Buckingham Palace, where thousands of people cheered on the newlyweds, there was one final present for the masses. With the sun shining through, Wills dropped the roof and with his bride by his side cruised slowly from Buckingham Palace, along the mall, and into Clarence House.

Now, there is no denying Kate looked wonderful, and the sight of her sister in that figure hugging dress may have sent the male population of Planet Earth a little crazy, but for us petrolheads the elegant Aston stole the show.

A 21st birthday present from the Queen (not bad; I got a Peugeot 106…), the Prince of Wales has owned the car since 1969. To give it its full name, the Aston Martin DB6 Volante MkII, in Seychelles Blue, was covered in ribbons and balloons, no doubt the handiwork of the mischievous Harry. This particular DB6 is fairly unique as, in 2008, it was converted to run on E85 bioethanol fuel, along with the rest of Prince Charles’ fleet of cars. The final touch was the rear number plate reading ‘JU5T WED’.

And there you have the only mention of the Royal Wedding on this site… Promise.

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M3 goes all regal and redneck

Its the first day of April. Possibly the most frustrating day of the year to be surfing the web. Is this story a joke? Is this a double bluff? Its difficult to know who to trust, and that is especially true in the motoring industry.

BMW has a history of creating April Fools jokes, highlighted here. My personal favourite is the Insect Deflector system, if only it was real.

So what would 2011 have in store? Well it seems to be the tale of two M3’s that will cater to both extreme ends of the motoring spectrum. A pick-up truck for all you rednecks and a special edition in honour of the Royal Wedding.

Let’s start with the more ridiculous of the two, and the one which is clearly a joke. The Royal Edition is a specially designed M3 created specifically “to celebrate the forthcoming wedding of HRH Prince William of Wales and Miss Catherine Middleton.”

It is apparently nothing more than an aesthetic conversion featuring 3 new colours – Regal Red, Bridal White and Imperial Blue, as well as being upholstered in resplendent Windsor White Dakota leather inside. Perhaps the neatest touch is the adaptation of the M logo to create a ‘Will’ emblem.

All very cleverly written and advertised with the usual class. And it all seems fairly convincing until you look a little closer, when all doubts are apparently removed. The email contact is pauline.yorlegg@bmw.co.uk. A potentially German name at a glance, but on further examination I think we can pass this off as ‘Pulling Your Leg’, a brilliantly crappy joke dispelling that age old myth, proving that Germans do have a sense of humour after all…

So that’s that one cleared up, what about the pickup? Well, this is where things get a little more complicated. On first inspection this is about as laughable as the Royal Edition.

According to BMW, the M3 Pickup “will fire the imaginations of all motorists with a deep appreciation of top performance matched by a keen practical bent.” Fair enough, but it just seems a little difficult to swallow due to the date of its unveiling. But is this all a clever ploy?

I highlighted the history of jokes above. Everyone was expecting something like this, so when it arrived nobody was particularly surprised. Until the Royal Edition rocked up, that is, and the pickup began to gain more and more credibility. After all, it had been spotted testing around the Nurburgring, something that seems a little extreme for a practical joke.

Let’s hope its real, because if we’re honest, it looks brilliant, and with no weight over the back wheels it should be delightfully easy to sling sideways. Those crazy V8 Utes over in Australia show there is definitely a market for high-powered pickups and its hard to see a high-revving V8 with 420hp not being popular in the America.

And perhaps to ease the European market into the idea of pickup ownership, it’s even a convertible. Sort of. A removable targa roof makes chatting to the hillbillies stood in the back easier than ever!

So is the pickup a joke, a big BMW joke for both the redneck and regal among us? The ‘spied’ article above links to another site that claims it is in fact a one-off parts hauler, but everywhere you look there are conflicting stories. I would say I’m leaning towards joke, but if it is not, well it is a potentially brilliant marketing campaign. By disguising it as an April Fools they will create extra exposure as people debate its credentials. One of the best forms of advertising is through word of mouth as it costs nothing.

If that is the case, tongues are certainly wagging, and only time will tell if we’ll be fortunate enough to see this on the roads for real.

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Ken Block Gets it Very Wrong in Portugal

There are those among us that appear to have almost superhuman skill. We see it every day in the reactions, speed and power of professional sportsmen, from footballers to cricketers – they all have that edge.

Ken Block is one of these people. His series of Gymkhana videos have sent YouTube’s car fans crazy, and with good reason. Unfortunately, from time to time, things don’t go quite to plan, proving that these superstars are actually mere mortals. If you’re Wayne Rooney, this could mean smashing the ball wide from 6 yards, but when you make a living driving a little Ford Fiesta that boasts 650bhp… well things can be a bit more dramatic if you take your eye off the ball.

Block was caning it through his third run of the Vale de Judeau in the shakedown for Rally Portugal, when he clipped a rock while sideways. This catapulted the car skywards, and initiated a stomach churning barrel-roll before coming to rest on its roof amongst the trackside shrubbery.

Block and his co driver, Alex Gelsomino, were taken to hospital for precautionary checks, but appear to have gotten away with nothing more than dented pride. And a seriously dented Fiesta.

The accident put an end to his event before it had begun.

Now why not enjoy Block’s legendary Gymkhana series….

Gymkhana 1
Gymkhana 2
Gymkhana 3

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Acronymists Rejoice! It’s the MP4-12C GT3

Introducing the car with the most ridiculous name in motorsport, the McLaren MP4-12C GT3. This is the Big Mac, Supersized version of McLaren’s new road going supercar. If you’re one of the lunatics that felt the original’s elegantly clinical styling lacked visual impact, these pictures should remedy that. Everything has been turned up to 11, and that includes the technical specs.

Pictured here is the first GT3 variant to be built by McLaren GT, a new company that merges the expertise of the McLaren Group and CRS Racing. Watch the video above to see the brilliantly edited testing debut, with Chris Goodwin, McLaren’s chief test driver, at the wheel (and while we’re on the subject of videos, the McLaren Automotive YouTube channel is well put together, this nostalgic trip to the F1’s debut at the 1995 Le Mans 24hr event is a particular highlight). Make sure you turn the volume up because it sounds truly stunning, howling down the straights and cackling on the overrun like a wicked witch. And perhaps wicked is an appropriate term, especially when viewed from the rear, due to that mean styling. It looks like something from a Transformers movie, and the stance is just as aggressive, like a big cat sat on its haunches preparing to pounce.

The combined team from CRS and McLaren have taken the very best from the 12C road car and put it into a race car variant.

– Chris Goodwin, McLaren Automotive Chief Test Driver

McLaren have acquired the services of Portuguese racing driver Álvaro Parente as a test driver. The 26-year-old has found success in F3, winning the British F3 Championship in 2005, as well as representing Portugal in the A1 series. Parente is one of 6 test drivers that will be associated with the team by mid-2011. A full driver line-up will be released once the initial tests and shakedown sessions have been completed.

These tests follow on from months spent developing the car in the simulator located at McLaren’s Woking base. It’s the same simulator used to work on both the road going MP4-12C and the company’s Formula 1 car.

But how is this butch example different to its little brother? For starters, the new car is 100mm wider than the standard production car and features a new suspension system. McLaren are working with F1 technology suppliers, as well as having a team including experienced Formula 1 personnel. Sounds like a wonderful recipe for a competitive GT3 car, which a limited number of privateer teams will have the chance to run.

The GT3 is based on the standard car, revolving around the carbon MonoCell chassis, which weighs in at a mere 75kg. Race spec composite panels have also been added, as well as that vast rear spoiler for added downforce. As well as the spoiler, a new aerodynamics package has been added, incorporating a new front splitter, door blade, diffuser and louvres in the front fender to help glue the car to the track.

Although it uses the same 3.8-litre V8 as the original, this time round it gets special tuning for racing specifications. This will be mated to an all-new racing-specific gearbox from Ricardo, featuring a bespoke paddle-shifting system.

Adding all this power and upgraded technology means that some new stoppers are needed. This comes in the form of a new Bosch Motorsport ABS system as well as uprated calipers from the Formula 1 team’s suppliers. As well as these braking enhancements, the McMean comes with race specific roll-bars and dampers, due to GT3 regulations not permitting use of the chassis control system seen in the road car.

Since McLaren’s first foray into the world of supercars with the F1, their name has been synonymous with one of the most emotive road cars of all time. The central driving position gave that car a unique character that the MP4-12C appears to be struggling to emulate. That being said, the GT3 is sure to be one of the more brilliant and beautiful cars in the GT3 field.

Forget the bling, I’ll take my race-car clinical.

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Student Car Life: February 2011

Its one of those calls you hope you never have to receive. A call that meant I would be returning home from university for a short period to be with friends and family, attempting to come to terms with the loss of a friend and team-mate. This is now the second friend I have lost in a car accident and it certainly doesn’t become any easier to take in what has happened, especially when the loss of life is at such a young age. What it does hit home is how fragile we are and why car safety is of such importance in the industry. Manufacturers realise this and will use their safety ratings to sell their products.

I bear this in mind as I embark on the long journey home, as I pick my route as safely as possible through night time truckers on unlit motorways. As the wind buffets my little Peugeot around I wonder just how advanced safety measures were 20 years ago, especially in a budget car. I then remember the crash test on Fifth Gear a few years ago between a modern Smart and a big old Volvo. I shudder, and wipe the thought from my mind.

Fortunately for this trip I have my girlfriend alongside me for some company. I actually don’t mind long journeys. I have an hour long commute to university everyday, and this 5 hour slog gets easier every time I do it. Especially when you bear in mind that this little old car was probably designed for small trips to the shops and back, its comfort never fails to amaze me.

We have to leave late. My girlfriend is in Huddersfield for a university interview which doesn’t end until 4.30pm, so by the time we’ve got back to my flat and get all our things together its an hour later. What this does mean, though, is that we just need to grab a bite to eat and we will be leaving as the evening rush hour dies down. It is exactly 6.12pm when I turn the key in the ignition. Conservative estimates place us back home around 11 o’clock so that’s my target. I don’t know the statistics but I would be willing to place money on Huddersfield being the traffic light capital of England. It is actually ridiculous how often you stare at that small red circle, cursing how you seem to get caught at every single one! But in this traffic it doesn’t really make a huge amount of difference as you stare at the hundreds of red brake lights before you. It all begins to blur into one big, red traffic light, interjected by a rare shot of green that means right foot down to everyone other than the dithering old fart in front of you.

We’re out of town now, onto the rollercoaster B-roads that stand between us and the M1 heading south. Wakefield Road has signs erected reminding you of the huge number of fatalities experienced on this stretch of tarmac. I’m reminded of my reasons for this journey and feel a little subdued. Not that my girlfriend has noticed, as she cheerily chatters away to my left. This little Peugeot struggles with the ascents. Holding a constant speed is rather difficult as the lack of power is really noticeable when your speed begins to drop on the uphills. Much to the annoyance of whatever is tailgating me at this particular moment in time. I can only wilt as my inferiority complex associated with this car comes to the fore, as at the first sign of a straight bit the 911 behind me drops a cog and mashes the accelerator into the carpet. I can do nothing but pootle along just below the posted limits in a vain attempt to shake loose the train that has now grown behind me. It doesn’t help that on these dark, unlit back roads I’m unsure of the severity of the corners I am approaching, often finding myself feeling I could have easily carried another 10mph through. But after about an hour I slide into the relative safety of the M1.

As I’ve said before this little Pug amazes me every time it is asked to undertake a journey on the motorway. For the next hour and a half I sit with my foot to the floor cruising along easily. True, its quite noisy, but not half as noisy as you would expect. And yes, going uphill is still a problem, but there are usually downhills to counter balance the struggle. On the flats, foot to the floor, I hold around 75 to 80mph, going up a bit can drop this to around 60mph, whilst a swift descent got around 95mph indicated on the speedo at one point. While this is quite funny in hindsight, it is incredibly frustrating at the time. You can be cruising along happily catching traffic and gliding past only to find yourself with a big Beemer up your arse angrily wondering why you’re attempting to overtake in the outside lane going 65. A hill. Again. More than once I found myself halfway past a car only to find I would eventually have to pull in behind it 30 seconds later as my speed slowly dropped away, and that Beemer speeds swiftly off into the distance.

All that being said, the Pugs secret weapon is comfiness. I mentioned last time how it has plenty of room and comfy seats and on this long journey they’re a Godsend. Admittedly my girlfriend is vertically challenged, but she has plenty of room to stretch out and get comfortable, and as we roll into Watford Gap services my legs aren’t half as uncomfortable as they should be. That being said, this is a well earned break. Although we’d already eaten 3 hours ago, KFC was a welcome sight.

Only about 2 more hours to go now. Maybe that’s a little optimistic but I have every faith in the car. I feel I should say one thing and that is that when I say this car is comfy and generally praise it I should probably point out that these compliments are mainly in comparison to expectations. Its amazing for a car its age but I would kill for something newer! Give me a modern saloon and I reckon I could easily complete this journey in 4 hours without even needing to stop. But alas, I must stop the daydreaming. I’m staring at my wing-mirror judging the gap in the overly magnified mirror. It really does make the judging of gaps quite difficult. But I’m on and wringing the neck of every horse under the bonnet to get up to motorway speeds.

Friday nights on Radio 1 means repetitive dance music. I really am older than my years suggest. Flicking through local radio stations and onto the cheesy pop and 80’s classics provides some light relief for the next hour. Until my girlfriend settles on talk radio. Nothing bad per se, but the subject was yawn inducing. I can’t even remember what they were discussing, my mind sifting that to the ‘un-needed’ part of my brain and flushing it out. Despite the girlfriend’s declaration that she wanted to listen, she fell asleep shortly after. Only an hour to go and I was alone again with just the radio for company. 10.30pm and nowhere was playing the usual late night power ballads that I have enjoyed on many other midnight road trips. I put a CD on, although I wasn’t really concentrating on what was playing. I’m a little worried as I probably wasn’t concentrating on a lot at this point. “Be careful, remember the last part of a journey is the most dangerous bit” is heard to my left. She’s awake again. I realise we’re just outside Southampton and on roads I know well. My mood lifts. I happily listen to the voice from my passenger seat singing along knowing soon I can climb into bed and sleep hard.

It’s Saturday, and I’m on my way to football when I get the news I’m starting. Away for a couple of months then thrown back into the first team thanks to injuries and illness. And what a game. Called off the week previous due to the tragic news of our team mate’s death there was a highly charged atmosphere in the squad. Everyone was psyched up and ready to do Lawrence proud. Even Rob electrocuting himself trying to turn the heating up in the changing room wasn’t enough to distract us from our goal! Everyone played out of their skins, a performance to make Lozza proud. We’re now in the semi finals having sent two Premier League teams packing and we now have to do it again.

It is a stark reminder of the power of friendship and how important loved ones are in your life. My passion for cars seems slightly irrelevant at this point in time. No matter what, we’ll never forget our friend and team mate.

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Idiosyncrasies? I’d rather it just worked, thanks.

I love to know how stuff works. New stuff intrigues me. Change doesn’t bother me. Stuff not working does.

In the February 2011 issue of Top Gear magazine, Richard Hammond talks about how his love is greatest for those cars that cause him the most grief. It is an interesting article in which he is simply saying that, despite their clear drawbacks, he will purchase an electrically driven car the moment they create one that would get him to work without running out of juice.

I, too, am rather interested in the electric car. I am, admittedly, rather more interested in that Victorian lump that currently sits beneath the bonnet of most of today’s cars. However this is not the part of the article that really struck a cord with me. Through getting to know Hammond over the years as I’ve read his articles and watched him bumble about on television, he is clearly one of those people that likes to know how stuff works and likes to get his hands dirty. I am massively similar in the first part; massively different in the latter.

I love to know how stuff works. New stuff intrigues me. Change doesn’t bother me. Stuff not working does. I don’t care how you fix it, as long as I don’t have to. For this reason, I am similarly intrigued by the electric car. It is a completely different animal to the combustion engine as we know it, and instead of shaking our fists at its inadequacies we should instead marvel at its positives. For example, I would love to experience the acceleration in a Tesla Roadster as all that torque is available from a standstill. I’d revel in adapting my driving skills for a single geared car and then judge it on its own merits.

The point is, Hammond describes how, when his old classics go wrong, he simply grows fonder. When his new 911 would not start, he felt nothing. He believes that the reason behind this is that “its little frailties, vulnerabilities and quirks [render] it more alive, more human than machine.” Bollocks. Okay, so maybe the fact that his old cars are incredibly more desirable than any of the aging bangers I’ve driven may have something to do with it, but when my car goes wrong I just get angry. I’d take the new 911 any day, and if it didn’t work I’d still be annoyed, but at least I would be safe in the knowledge that this is probably a one off.

Mr Hammond would probably get on very well with my father. He actually loves when something goes wrong, because then he can fix it. And when he can’t fix it he’s even happier, as this means he gets to figure out why it isn’t working. And then he gets to fix it. I literally could not be more different to him if I walked in the garage wearing a tutu and a tiara and claimed a new found love of ballet. My old Ford Probe, as much as I loved it, went wrong all the time. But Darren! I hear you cry, are you not backing up Richard’s point? No. No I’m not. Because I only loved it when it worked. Whenever something went wrong I hated it. I hated it with a passion because I knew that I would probably have to sit and watch my Dad out in the cold, scratching his chin and getting greasy under the bonnet. I knew I’d probably have to walk to the train station and wait for the inevitably delayed service to work the next day. And I knew that it would probably cost a fortune to fix it. For this reason, I cannot wait for the day when I can finally afford a new car. In fact, I’d kill for something on a new style plate!

I don’t want to figure out why it went wrong, I just want it fixed again. And, due to my inability to concentrate on the rare occasions I do try to learn something, I know that when it does go wrong I won’t be able to do anything about it. Unless I get a puncture. I know how to change a tyre. And I hate doing it. The beauty of an electric car is the fact that it only has one moving part. Apparently. Whatever that means…

For me, a car is an object to be loved. A car is a big investment, and therefore it should bring nothing but joy to your life. It should be aesthetically pleasing so that you can take pictures and show your friends and just be proud to be seen in it. It should be a nice to place to sit, as you will spend the majority of your time inside it, one would hope. And finally it should be fun to drive so that whenever you see it parked on your drive you smile, knowing the next time you get to park your cheeks behind the wheel it will be a pleasurable experience, and that all the money you’ve thrown at it – fuel, insurance, depreciation and a myriad of other things – was worth it.

This is why, like Hammond, I’m biding my time before embracing electric power. For him, it is purely range. I, on the other hand, will not purchase an electric car until we have the infrastructure. Until we have the proof that the cars are reliable. Unlike him, I think the fact that being an early adopter means you get “an engagingly shite, flawed and silly car into which to pour [your] love” is about as appealing as Katie Price spread eagle on the bonnet of a Nissan Micra.

Getting stuck down a remote countryside lane waiting for the AA to bring a generator to spark me back into life will not endear me to my car. It will, in fact, make me hanker for old gas guzzlers to return to me. Fuck the melting polar ice caps, I quite like driving. And I actually quite like the reassuring knowledge that my car will get me to my destination…

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Student Car Life: January 2011

As a lover of everything ‘fast car’ since a relatively young age, it was always my ambition to buy a car based on ambition rather than necessity. What this amounted to in my eyes was that I would always own a car I was proud of. A car that would make me smile every time I saw it on my driveway. For example, I had always imagined needing a family car and visualised myself in a Ford Mondeo ST220, thus allowing me to fit the kids in on the way to school and hoon around B-roads on the way back.

The unfortunate thing about life is that things don’t always go to plan. This, then, is why I find myself giving you monthly updates on living with a Peugeout 106. Not inherently bad, but when I tell you it is a small engined diesel that was made in the same year as the majority of my university flatmates you get some idea of what I’m dealing with.

A few days before Christmas my friend text me saying his drifting days were over. This meant selling his heavily modified Nissan 200sx and his old run around, the 106, in order to make space for something a little more sensible. He’d heard that I was a poor student in need of something to get me to university and felt he had just the thing. I had toyed with the idea of not getting a car. I knew I couldn’t afford something decent, which was why I had sold my lovely old Ford Probe before I moved away, however a 90 minute bus trip every day was not my idea of fun. Nor was the 90 minute return journey. Cramped, cold and bored I decided there was only one thing for it… I must delve deep into my pockets and scrape together enough to buy a car. The only criteria being that it must be cheap to buy. And cheap to run. And cheap to insure.

A short drive across town with my Dad and a little squirt around a Tesco car park in the Pug saw the keys in my hand, and my account £350 lighter. I perused the internet looking to glean anything interesting about my newly acquired motor. According to Carfolio the little hatchback puts out an incredible 50bhp at 5000rpm, with a power to weight ratio of nearly 60bhp per tonne. Truly incredible stuff I’m sure you’ll agree. Well, incredible that after 20 years and 120 thousand miles there are actually enough horses left in the stable to move the damn thing…

Once you’re sat inside though, it’s surprisingly roomy. My lanky frame fits perfectly, as does that of my similarly wiry framed friend Jordan, who as a regular passenger exclaimed that he couldn’t quite believe the room he had. From the outside it really looks like a tin can perched on wheels stolen from a supermarket trolley, but the interior opens out like that of a tardis. Okay, maybe not quite, but you get the picture. The other quite remarkable thing about this car is the ride. The seats are incredibly comfy, and the car pootles along smoothly and quietly to the point where voices are barely raised at all. It really doesn’t feel as ‘small car’ as you’d expect. Admittedly, on idle the engine sounds less attractive than a high revving tractor, but we can excuse that. The lack of power steering is also barely an issue. Having never previously experienced a car without it, I expected every journey to be a wrestle with that big, plastic, circular object. A pleasant surprise was in order though, as it is only at very small speeds that I really struggle, whilst anything above 10mph feels perfectly good. I almost prefer it as you get a lot of feel. Almost prefer it…

Elsewhere inside the car is really showing its age. Although the cloth seats are comfortable, they are well worn, as you would naturally expect from a car this old. My favourite idiosyncrasy has to be the radio. Stolen from my first ever car this headunit works perfectly fine, except for the fact that a pin has broken that holds it in place. No problem. After much fiddling with coins and other assorted crap I found on the floor I eventually managed to wedge a folded piece of paper between the gap and the fascia, which has held it sturdily in place ever since!

Outside the paint job is in surprisingly good condition. Obviously there’s the odd scrape here and there, but ignoring the huge dent in the front quarter (as can be seen in the photo at the top!) I’m pleased with how it looks. Lovely retro graphics adorn the front grille and doors indicating that this is the appropriately named Graduate model.

Problems? There are a few. The main one (especially since I’ve moved up north…) is that the heating doesn’t work. Should be a simple fix that I’ll get my dad to sort out while I go out drinking next time I’m home. Because I’m just a wonderful son like that. The only other gripe is the layout of the pedals. Just so long as you haven’t driven anything else before or after you won’t notice. But jumping out of my little 106 and taking the reigns of my Dad’s brand new Audi A4 not only rammed home just how dated my car looks and feels, but made my attempts to pull away in a dignified manner laughable. This is because this little car swap had highlighted a previously unnoticed flaw. My legs are pointing towards the centre of the car as I drive, presumably to get around the front wheel in this tiny car! In the Audi, what with its new fangled ‘straight ahead’ pedals, meant I kicked the inside wall and stamped my right foot on the clutch, before fumbling around looking for the correct pedal to make the thing move! But maybe I’m being picky. As I said, its not until you drive something ‘normal’ that it’s a problem. And a small problem at that, you adjust within minutes. The pedals themselves are fine though, the clutch is relatively light and smooth, the brake pedal is progressive (once you get past the initial few fear-inducing centimetres of nothing) and the tiny throttle pedal is perhaps a metaphor for the power to be unleashed when you mash it into the floor.

Stay tuned for February’s updates, where I will discuss how this little survivor handles the 10 hour round trip from university to home for a weekend of birthday celebrations, as well as how it conquers the pennines daily. Looking into my crystal ball I see it will be tales of wishing I had a better, modern car for both the blustery motorway hauls and to take advantage of the beautifully twisty Pennine roads. My recent obsession with Citroen’s DS3 won’t go away as the frustratingly uninspiring Peugeot trudges along.

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