Performance Tuning - Overall considerations
Throughout my admittedly fairly short journalistic career writing for the specialist Mini magazines I've tried my very best to enlighten as many of you as possible about the most common topics put forward by others, but within a magazine there's always limited space and there's always the desire for more. Absolutely loads of questions are received, most of which I reply to personally, a very few of which end up in the 'knowledge' section and others prompt the articles I do.
When answering I try to decide where the next article should go to satisfy as many readers as possible. Invariably this has been for the benefit of the road brigade - up until now the racers of all disciplines have had to sift through what's been covered to find the information relevant to them. So to sate the desire of those who have any racing tendencies at all for any discipline of motorsport you fancy competing in - weekend warrior to full circuit racing - here's something for you all to consider.
Before embarking on the road to glory, there's some elementary knowledge and basic preparation to get to grips with. Enjoyment must be the ultimate goal. Far too many folk start on the path of motor racing with eager and excited trepidation, then give up all too soon because of vastly depleted funds or enthusiasm.
It's definitely no fun having to haul the engine out after yet another failure and further deplete your rapidly dwindling cash reserves by fixing another problem. Being privy to this knowledge can help avoid both, and therefore prolong active, enjoyable racing.
Over various articles on this section of the site I'm going to be dealing with basic preparations that will enable you to compete in the myriad of motorsport disciplines that are currently available, be reasonably competitive - but above to be mechanically reliable and enjoy yourself.
They will not be exact blow by blow accounts of exactly what to do for each discipline - it would be as impossible to achieve that as it would be to detail everything for road-orientated driving. Rather it will encompass those subjects most often but tentatively voiced - basic knowledge you're apparently already supposed to have but feel foolish asking about.
Then there's the 'black art' stuff that seems to magically propel the more experienced to greater levels of performance without suffering persistent mechanical failures. As stated above, this is for both you and the car - after all, one won't achieve without the other.
SHORTENING THE ODDS
Becoming familiar with all aspects of your chosen discipline will greatly enhance more favourable results. Implicit knowledge of the controlling regulations is mandatory, as is familiarisation with how your fellow competitors have applied them. They may not, of course, let you in on all the secrets - but some careful observation of the cars in the paddock will reveal a great deal. Especially as your experience grows.
If you haven't already decided which discipline you want to contest, get yourself along to a number of meetings of the type you fancy competing in. Then distil it down from there. If you already know what you want to do, get along to several meetings. In both cases, take a good look at as many of the competitors' cars as possible, and make sure you speak to their owners. You'll find many willing to talk - most enjoy discussing their pride and joy. Don't concentrate on those that are front-runners, talk to all you can - including mid-field and tail-enders. They all have useful information to share.
Always take a camera and note pad with you. Pictures and notes are far better than relying on memory, and often reveal things not normally noticed at first. How many of you have studied photographs of other folks cars in this magazine and thought "what a neat idea, I'd never have thought of that!" Many, I know. I would recommend getting the photos printed on larger sizes than normal - saves a load of eyestrain!
Most racing takes place under the umbrella of a club. In some cases clubs band together to form bigger meetings, and it's usually necessary to belong to a club before you will be able to compete. There's usually a club organiser or representative there, find out who this is from the other competitors and then get as many details about the club as you possibly can.
Failing that, get in touch with the governing motorsport body. In the UK that's The Motorsport Association Ltd (tel: 01753 681736), I'm afraid I can't help elsewhere in the world. They generally have lists of all the competing clubs, so will point you in the right direction.
HEDGING YOUR BETS
Whilst chatting to the drivers and car owners in your selected arena, try and get a feel for what budgets they're using. Deciding how much you want to spend is relatively important. Deciding where to spend it is vital.
I'd love a pound for every person who has asked me questions on improving their car's performance and then go on to tell me what they've already done to the engine. Not a word about the rest of the car.
Invariably the lion's share of the cash has been ploughed into squeezing as much power out of the engine as possible, believing this to be the way to glory - leaving a few shillings for the rest of the car. Utter madness. No matter which discipline is selected, maximum performance of the car as a whole is essential. To win - first you must finish; an old adage, but oh so very true. This needs reliability. To be competitive, no matter what your skill level is, you must be confident in the car. Reliability and confidence - the route to motor racing Utopia.
COURSE OF ACTION
Getting the aforementioned spot-on can be witnessed by everyone, displayed in acute detail by the unsung heroes in the Formula One pit lane - be it shaving stops down by a few tenths of a second or changing strategy mid-race. The end result being glorification by getting their driver in front or getting it wrong - derision from their fans and a slating by the press. Not quite so vital at base levels maybe, but forming a plan is certainly a necessity if progress and glory are sought. This can be as little as finishing a race with the engine still intact or scoring a higher placing than before.
It's impossible to remember all relevant details of each event under-taken, so make and keep notes or records. Maintain a dedicated book or folder for future reference. Why do you think the Formula One brigade have all that data-logging equipment? It sure ain't to play Sonic The Hedgehog on!
The size of achievement is irrelevant; it's the sense of achievement that matters. Oh, I know there are those who do very well in their chosen discipline without any sort of planning. But just how successful could they be if they did bother? I've met very few who didn't wish they could achieve improvements in certain areas.
The records made at each event have several uses. To progress, it's vital to know what you've done before and what you want to do in the future - be this tuning or development work on specific parts, or track-to-track tweaks.
The results from any tuning and development tried can be used to determine if you're heading in the right direction. Data recorded on car set-up for particular tracks and conditions as well as race results can be used to achieve consistent performance. It's impossible to commit all this to memory. Guessing usually ends in disappointment, using hard data promotes consistency - very important when racing.
UNDER STARTERS ORDERS
To get up and running we'll delve into this reliability and confidence thing. And one other point - ego. There are some parts of the human ego that can best be described as touchy - and driving ability's one! Many like to believe they have exceptional driving abilities. These folk are often those that blame the car rather than themselves for poor performance, when even a cursory look over the car proves it to be a masterpiece. Leave the ego on a garage shelf when racing - it'll cause less friction and enhance your learning capabilities.
Your car must be reliable. There's absolutely no point in tuning any part of the car to the n-th degree if it continually breaks down. As mentioned before, the fun soon goes out of the job if repairs have to be made after every meeting. More often than not this involves finance too, so the budget gets a severe kicking. And not only that…
The idea when starting out is to build a reasonably competitive car that will stay in one piece long enough for you to start gaining all-important experience before embarking on a plan of development. You won't be able to do that if your car spends most of its time in the paddock or on a trailer coz something broke. Again.
The engine. Spending 90 per cent of your budget on an engine to compete power-wise with the front-runners is a complete waste of money. Camshafts with supersonic profiles that give maximum power at extreme rpm in a band that's 400 rpm wide is pointless. Particularly if the other components aren't up to the deal, you're just creating a grenade waiting to explode.
All the horsepower in the world isn't worth a damn if you can't use it. You really will learn far more about driving and race craft by running with an under-powered car that manages to keep on going. Only invest in a killer motor when you're confident you're using what you have to the absolute full, and can afford to build it right - or have it built - so it'll stay together. Being wary of a motor with grenade tendencies will erode confidence and destroy reliability.
The gearbox. Forking out on a mega-whammy gearbox won't help make you a front runner either, although having the most suitable ratios for the wheel and tyre sizes you use and the tracks you race on is more important then a ballistic engine. Getting the ratios right will help maximise usage of what power the engine has. A properly rebuilt gearbox fitted under a more mildly tuned motor will cause less aggravation and despair than sticking a monster motor on an old, used gearbox. Not to mention quicker, more competitive lap times. Again, failures will damage reliability, undermine confidence and deplete funds.
The suspension. Getting this sorted is tantamount to a car that handles well. The term implies the car needs to feel good in your hands - and this is exactly so. A car that you feel comfortable with will greatly improve your confidence.
Wayward, inadequate, unsuitable, ill-conceived, or poorly serviced suspension will cause erratic, inconsistent handling. The net result will have you wondering what the car's going to do next rather than concentrating on going quicker. In short - destroying your confidence. Components should be suitable for their intended use to give reliability.
The brakes. Suitability's the key here. While many profess there's nothing like too much in this area - and it's obvious too little is a no-no - having the right set-up will boost confidence enormously. For some reason a set of capable brakes makes most of us feel very secure when driving. Strange when applied to racing since the idea is to go as fast as possible surely? But then again this speed needs to be controlled, and must happen time and again. This is definitely a confidence thing. The right parts give the reliability part of the equation.
The shell. Ultimate performance of all the components can only be achieved if they're attached to a solid base. The shell - basically no more than a big and slightly complex bracket to hold all the essentials together - needs to be solid and braced where necessary. A new one is far from essential. I'd consider it a luxury. Having one that's not falling apart will do wonders to increase confidence.
Reliability, confidence and consistency. The main ingredients to enjoyable and successful motorsport. The order of importance should be shell, wheels, tyres and suspension, brakes, gearbox and finally engine. And that's how you need approach it. You hopefully now understand that a race car should be considered as a whole. Not one aspect brings glory. And that includes you.