Thursday, 25 February 2010

What do you get if you cross a Ford Cortina, a Ford Sierra, a Landrover Freelander and a Kawasaki ZX-10R?

There’s no other way of putting it. I’m back on the road to ruin! I was finding it impossible not to have at least a fledgling project on-the-go and had a few options:
  • Another Locost racer
  • A BMW powered kit car to race in the Welsh Saloons and Sports
  • A RGB car 

Well, I guess Fate played its hand; you remember Steve Hignett? Regular readers will remember Steve as being the chap (read Godsend) who helped me so much in progressing both the MNR build and the Locost refresh. Steve had been researching and scheming in preparation for his own lightweight bike-engined car for some time. In fact, he’d made a start on the chassis. Unfortunately for Steve, the prospect of a new baby (that’s obviously not the unfortunate part!!) on the way meant that his vision was unlikely to reach its full potential for a long while. However, he was keen to see his own design of chassis built and in use and hence he offered it to me.

It seemed like the push that I needed. I’d always wanted to race in RGB and this would give me the chance to do so. While common consensus suggests that a traditional 7-styled vehicle is at an (aerodynamic) disadvantage against some of the other cars, I’d never had an interest in full-bodied kit cars and as Steve’s car was a 7ish, everything seemed to make sense. Not wishing to make myself out to be some sort of idealistic zealot, but I also think the series could benefit from a few more shapes familiar to bike engined MK, Mac#1 and Locost owners.

So, on the basis of the picture below, a plan was hatched whereby the chassis and associated parts, including wishbones and rollcage would be completed and then put into storage awaiting my return from travelling.
In order to complete the chassis, Steve would require a list of parts so that the correct mountings could be fabricated. First job was to select an engine. Steve had originally planned to fit a ZX-12R which would have put me in Class A with the fastest machinery out there. I took the view that a Class B ZX-10R would be better for my purposes. This also worked well with the Freelander diff that Steve was planning to employ, giving a maximum speed of about 134mph, which should be about right.
Suspension will be double-unequal-length wishbones at each corner, using Sierra hubs at the rear and Cortina uprights at the front. While this build is not expected to be cheap, it is not a ‘money-no-object’ exercise either; hence the donor-sourced parts. In addition to the shape, we’re also departing from conventional wisdom with the reversing mechanism. Many have tried mechanical systems and have had issues. We are using the relatively new MNR reverse box. The issue for me is that if my storage remains the same or even similar to how it was this year with the Locost, it would be virtually impossible to manoeuvre the car towards the trailer and back into the garage on my own without a robust and reliable reverse. My experience of the starter-motor based electric systems is that they’re just not man-enough. One piece of encouragement is that Redback Racing are utilising the reverse box in Australia with no apparent issues. Fingers crossed! 
So there we have it: a new project. I’ll explain a bit more about the spec and issues thus far next time. As I type this, the chassis is probably 4-8 weeks from being powdercoated

Monday, 15 February 2010

Hair-dresser's car...

At Snetterton a couple of fellow competitors had a chat with me about the future of my car, with reference to family and friends looking to enter the championship. One such person was John Bunce, who we’d been camped near. John shares a MK chassis’d car with his mate Anthony May.  2009 was their first season as well and they had encountered a few issues with their box-fresh car and had also struggled for grunt (and revs) from the motor.  There’s no denying that it looks really good though in bright yellow.

John had another good mate who was looking to join the series after dabbling with Formula cars for a number of years. Hailing from only an hour or so down the M4 they were quite keen to see the car. I still had the issue of the failed gearbox/selector to deal with. I contemplated swapping the gearbox myself as I had a spare. However, the fact that I didn’t know if it was serviceable and the usual pressures of MBA work meant that I decided to outsource the work.  I had a think about who could do the work and remembered that there was a RWD Escort aficionado in the form of just 20 minutes from home. I gave Bob a call and arranged to drop the car and spare gearbox down to him the following Saturday morning. He removed, stripped, inspected and reassembled the gearbox, effectively making one really good unit from two. The cause of my gear change problems was found to be a snapped selector pin. The cost was pretty reasonable and aside from needing to readjust the clutch cable, everything was perfect. Just moving the car around the yard and into the garage the gearshift felt better than ever.

John and his (hair-dressing) mate Kev were still keen to see the car. They were also interested in the trailer which was a bonus and asked me to bring the trailer over to the car (it was stored elsewhere) in anticipation of a sale - Excellent. I cleaned the car and organised the spares into three sections: bits that should go with the car; bits to scrap and; odds-and-sods that I was keen to keep. When the following Saturday came around, having chatted about all things motorsport-related and a good look around the car, a deal was struck, I had a figure in mind, and having sold the car and trailer to Kev and my wheel straps to John I was bang-on target. I’d made nothing but had come out of it ok. Only the costly gearbox rebuild meant that my ownership period resulted in a net outflow of funds, and even then it was marginal.
This obviously doesn’t include the cost of actually racing which was never going to be as cheap as fishing, golf or salsa classes.

I was of course sad to see the car go and had toyed with the idea of keeping it. However, I knew that I didn’t have the room to store everything while travelling so it was the only practicable solution. I hope Kev goes well in it. While I’ve met some great people racing, I imagine that competing against ‘proper’ mates-since-school must be brilliant. It should be an exciting season for Kev, John and Anthony.

What about me? Well, the problem is that I’m totally obsessed with all things automobile and now racing so I was already thinking about keeping an eye-out for a few bargains which could be used on a future project. As it was, I was soon accumulating more stuff than originally anticipated…

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Norfolking way; not now!

Another race day was upon us, the last of the season and the first 750MC event to be filmed for television (Hi Mum!) I really was pretty desperate to pick-up where I had left off (in terms of pace) at Oulton. More importantly, I was determined not to make a daft mistake and spin. I hadn’t in testing, although I’d pushed a bit hard into The Esses on one occasion so knew my limits there.

Scrutineering went without a hitch, although the gentleman looking at my car wanted to ensure that there was brake fluid in my integral master cylinders. Of course there was, but I had put the caps on a bit tight so they were not easy to remove for inspection. Qualification was soon upon us. I was lined up in the holding area about mid-way down the field alongside friendly faces in the form of Mr Boucher and Mrs Stafford. Oddly a few of the cars required bump-starts which raised a few eye-brows. Later checks revealed nothing untoward but it can’t help driver confidence if your car struggles to splutter into life.

I’ve found that I seem to take a long time to get up to speed in any session. This could be down to a number of factors:
  • Car set-up and the way that I warm my tyres
  • Depletion of fuel load
  • Growing confidence, made all the more prominent by my inexperience
I strongly suspect that it has more to do with the latter.

The result was that I was nowhere near as smooth or committed as I was during the last two sessions on the Friday. The lower track temperature may have played a part too but I wasn’t terribly happy when the chequered flag was shown at the end of the session. It was still my best grid position; sixteenth.

As usual, there were a few hours before the race. I made the usual checks to fluids and bolts and tried to chill-out a bit. Kate and I also packed the van so we were more or less ready for the off as soon as we could strap the car to the trailer after the race. It was soon time to get togged-up and strapped in. For once I had a nice clear view of the starting lights. I was very pleased with my start; using just 3000rpm to get off the line. Ideally I should have squeezed the power in a bit sooner than I did but it was a 'good un' none-the-less. I was conscious that I didn’t want to throw it away in the melee that is lap-1 and, as a result had lost a place by the time we crossed the stripe for the first time.

The next few laps were typically hard fought and I found myself as low as 17th and as high as 12th by the start of the sixth lap. I felt like I was ‘getting into the groove’ too. My pass on Campbell was shown on the Motors TV footage and I remember throwing the car into Riches to make it stick. I had a good run to Sear and braked, went for third and was inexplicably unable to move the gear stick from fourth! This unsettled the car horribly and I had a huge tank-slapper which carried me well wide onto the run-off area. Thankfully nobody was really near me. Campbell, Vicky Pickles and others shot up the inside as I yanked at the gear-stick to try to get it out of fourth. Eventually I was succesful and I set off in warm-pursuit. Not having any speed to carry down the Revett made it excruciating. Even the Monkey-mascot on my dash appeared to glaze-over. My subsequent shifts felt only a little awkward - at least until I tried to short-shift to fourth for the Bomb-hole. Again, it was wedged in gear and I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and pulled off the circuit half-way around Coram. I was able to drive onto an escape road and a friendly Marshall then opened the gate allowing me to drive onto the infield and back to the trailer, all in third gear. I launched the car up the waiting ramps as best as I could and headed off to find Kate. I was disappointed but my race was effectively over at Sear so I was pretty philosophical by the time I got out of the car. Kate was relieved to see that I was ok – it’s clear that I do her nerves no favours when stopping out on track!

So, just when I was finding my feet and on the cusp of the top-ten, the car let me down for the first time. Still, I consider myself lucky, particularly given the problems that Sian has had with the more expensive car that I almost bought! As for my general outlook, after the lows and highs of Oulton, the events at Snetterton meant that I felt pretty peeved. I still feel a little glum when I think about it now, some five months on. This probably isn’t helped by the fact that I won’t get a chance to put those feelings ‘to bed’ in 2010 due to the sale of the car and travel plans.

On the plus-side, the weekend had resulted in some strong interest in the car. Presumably though, any prospective buyer would want a car with a functioning gearbox.

More on that next time.


Tuesday, 2 February 2010

After Oulton and Snetterton Test afternoon.

We had two weeks between Oulton and the last round of 2009 at Snetterton. Fortunately, there wasn't really anything to do to the car. Things outside of racing had rather changed. As per previous posts, I knew that I would be made redundant at a point in the not-too-distant future. What had changed is that I'd stopped looking for work and Kate and I had instead started planning a 6-9 month career break and some travelling. This meant that I was actually facing a situation where this would be my last outing in my Stuart Taylor Locost #41. This wasn't at the forefront of my thoughts at this stage however. There was a race weekend ahead.

I originally thought I'd be unable to find time to test at Snett on the Friday but as we approached the race weekend it became evident that I would have time. Daily phone calls to MSV finally resulted in a booking for the PM session. Kate and I arrived after a long west-to-east journey to Norfolk to find a paddock bristling with all sorts of machinery. There were clearly some on budgets much bigger than the usual 750MC clubbie crowd.

Amongst the cars testing was a Caparo T1 (the car that set fire to Fifth Gear presenter and BTCC racer Jason Plato) as well as a Mosler MT900. These are some of the fastest cars it's possible to buy and pretty much the exact opposite of my Locost. Pictures can be found on Dan's write up of the day here: DanB back in RGB. Fortunately, the T1 had been moved into the single seater sessions, but for some reason the Mosler had stayed with us in 'closed wheel.' Already there from Locosts were Sian Stafford, Dave Boucher and Campbell Cassidy - all supported by the good folks at TMC. After a quick chat with them, I got myself signed-on, got the car unloaded and got myself kitted-up.

The test day was different to the one at Oulton in that the afternoon would give me just two fifty minute sessions. The difficulty with this is that my fuel tank wouldn't hold anything like enough juice for that period, particularly as so much of the lap is at full throttle. I'd thought ahead and had velcro'd a stop-watch to the dash. The plan was to do 15-18 minutes, come in, refuel and get back out again giving myself four smaller sessions in the afternoon.

Initially, the other Locosts were much faster. They had been testing all day and, in some cases, using data logging and comparison against multiple race winner Matt Cherrington to help them improve. As the time went on though found myself keeping pace, only occasionally unsettled by the Mosler. That thing is ridiculously quick. I was exiting Sear Corner onto the long Revett Straight and checking my mirrors: nothing to report. Then, BOOM the Mosler would explode past on my left and thunder down the straight in front of me; truly something to behold.

At the start of my last mini-session David, Campbell, Sian and I were all bunched-up having a mini-race of our own. It was great fun - Campbell later gave me a bit of a ribbing as he made a lunge for a pass at Coram and I backed-out fearing that he was following Sian and not wanting to turn-in on anyone. As it was Sian had fallen back and I needn't had worried. Campbell was quite happy with that though (the swine!) and it set the tone for the race on the Sunday.

The following lap, as I accelerated out of the Russell Chicane something started making a horrible noise and I thought I'd lost power. I pulled-off into the pits wondering if my season was over. Once parked-up I called Matt at Procomp and explained the lawn-mower-like noise. He suggested that I find Tony from TMC and ask him to check the rockers on the engine. I hadn't really met Tony and felt a bit cheeky asking for help, but he didn't hesitate to assist. On hearing the noise, the rocker cover was removed and all of the clearances checked. Everything seemed to be fine. If it was the bottom-end it was game over! I considered going home. All that made me stay was the fact that we weren't racing for 48 hours so that gave me some time to find a solution. Even so I was less than happy. After finding a good spot to camp and getting the tent sorted out, we spent the evening in the bar with our fellow ‘Locosters’ and had a good chat with some fellow 'Welshies' who raced in SaxMax and Stock Hatch.

The following morning I got up and started the engine.  The noise seemed to have gone. I had a look over the car and spotted that the rear exhaust mount was broken. I must have grounded-out when running wide at The Esses where there is a big drop from the race circuit down to what may be the surface of the original airfield. I checked the rest of the exhaust and found that number one primary was no longer welded to the flange; result. Easy enough fix. I went and found Tony again and asked for his help in welding it up. I went and removed the exhaust while he got his welding gear and headed for a pit garage. I then rang Matt and asked him to bring a replacement exhaust mount. Later that day, the car was all back together and clean (Motors TV were filming the weekend for their 'Race & Rally UK' series.)

Job jobbed (this is becoming a bit of a cliché on this blog I think?) I showered and Kate and I then took a drive to Strada in Bury St Edmonds for dinner which was nice. I was fairly tired by the time we got back to the circuit and was looking forward to my sleeping bag. I certainly needed to get some rest ahead of another race day.