Following my last racing action at Cadwell Park, we discovered a fundamental issue with the car’s engine performance. I took the decision to abstain from racing in the MX-5 Championship until we had got to the bottom of it and put it right. Last week, I took the car to get its engine tested at a specialist builders. That gave me the data I needed on exactly how much power my car was lacking. This week, to complete that baseline, I wanted to understand how that deficit translated into performance loss.
Since test days are rather rare and expensive, us club-level racing drivers do most of our development on open track days. This means we’re sharing the track with amateur enthusiasts and road car users, so there are strict rules governing how we may drive, overtake and monitor performance. Timing is not allowed on a track day for a multitude of very sensible reasons. However, since the car is fitted with a data logger, we are able to drive the track day as usual and then download the data at a later time for analysis. This is therefore how we took a baseline of the car’s pace.
Since my team-mate from Go4itRacing accompanied me to the track, we were able to compare the data from the two cars to monitor where there were differences in performance. He also drove my car for a stint, to give me a baseline to compare against (and also evaluate the handling of the car!).
The outcomes were astonishing. On average, I was lapping 6 seconds slower in my car than my more experienced team-mate in his car. His best lap time in my car was 2.5 seconds quicker than mine. So, putting to one side the fact that I need to find 2.5 seconds a lap in my own driving, the performance difference between my team-mate’s car and mine with the same driver was a staggering 3.5 seconds per lap.
Now, we know that a significant chunk of that is in engine performance. We managed to identify another chunk in braking system efficiency, and another chunk of time that can be attributed to tweaking the setup to allow for better stability through high-speed corners. This is all fantastic data because it gives us a really clear idea of where to go next with the development of the car.
However, the day wasn’t just about finding a performance baseline for the car. It was also about me learning the track ahead of what I hope will be my return to racing in mid-August, at the Donington Park GP circuit. I had driven Donington hundreds of times on my simulator, so I knew the track layout and had a reasonable idea of racing lines and braking points. This approach had served me well in learning Brands Hatch and Cadwell Park earlier in the year.
Donington turned out to be a deceptively tricky track to learn! I found it took me a lot longer to get up to speed than it had done with the other tracks I mentioned above. This may be because the track doesn’t naturally suit my style as much, or it may be because characteristics of the circuit in real life such as camber, track surface, etc. were far more difficult to adapt to in real life. It took me at least 20 laps to get to grips with the famous Old Hairpin bend, which included a high-speed trip across the grass, but eventually I nailed the apex.
Whatever the reason, I was thankful to have had this day to practice before turning up for Qualifying at the race event, as I would have been all at sixes and sevens trying to tackle the track for the first time in a competitive session. I am now a bit clearer on my lines and reference points than I was at the start of the day, but I’m certainly nowhere near my ultimate pace yet. I guess I’ll have to find some more time from following other drivers in August’s qualifying session.
Unfortunately, as is becoming a bit of an annoying theme on these track days, my running was cut short by a technical problem with the car. A recurrence of the electrical issue that reared its ugly head at Brands Hatch caused the car to misfire and threaten to cut out when accelerating up Donington’s many hills, meaning I had no choice but to park it in the garage.
My team-mate tried his best to fix it, but the final two and a half hours of the day were spent frustratingly sat in the paddock or on the pit wall watching other cars circulate while more technically-minded people tried to figure out why the hell my car didn’t want to start.
So, what was overall a very positive and enlightening day was sadly curtailed by reliability issues. It will be absolutely critical to identify the root cause of my car’s problems and resolve them before my next racing action at Donington on the 17th-18th August, so I will be keeping everything crossed. I know that the car is in the best possible care between now and then, so I hope to be able to post some good news soon.