Fastest Lap Competition
Streets of Willow
We say it every year but the Tuner GP really heats up once we arrive at the road course. This is where every team wants to win. It's where the tuner's art is under the microscope and can be best appreciated.
All the teams were on their Conti DW tires to ensure a level playing field, but they were allowed to enlist a professional driver if required. Most teams have a go themselves, but putting a hired gun behind the wheel doesn't hurt their chances.
In truth, we should probably provide our own driver to remove another variable, but it's difficult for one pilot to get the most from 11 different cars with little familiarization. So we allow driver selection to be another aspect of event preparation.
After the driver's briefing, all teams were given three 20min practice session in the morning. The 11 cars were split into three groups, so only three or four cars were on the track at any time. This gives them the opportunity to check set-up before the timed laps in the afternoon.
In between sessions, most teams were using the time to alter tire pressures and adjust suspension settings. Many found that the pressures could be lower than expected while the suspension needed to be stiffer to find the extra grip.
As usual, 034 Motorsport was the best prepared, having completed shakedown tests with the TT RS prior to arrival. However, the engine and suspension had since been altered in the continual quest for improvement, so driver Christian Miller requested several changes to find his happy place.
In the very first session, the TT set one of the fastest times of the day at 1:26.8, which showed they meant business. It was a time they struggled to repeat until the second session where Christian matched it. The third session was slightly slower but the team was now preserving its tires for a big effort in the afternoon timed session.
Over at Eurocode Tuning, the size and torque of the Audi S6 was causing some tire wear issues. In practice, the car seemed to understeer quite badly and the team was busy altering the pressures and rotating the tires to address the problem.
The times reflected the situation, with the first session resulting in a best time of 1:30.3, which was definitely off the pace. In the second session they dropped to 1:29 but seemed to have a steep hill to climb and spent a great deal of time working on the car.
Over at AccuAir, this was the real test of its Sports air suspension system. It was the first time any team had attempted to use air bags instead of coil springs in a high performance event like this, and only time would tell if they would succeed.
One variable was the introduction of Jim Pierce for driving duties. He has considerable experience of the Streets circuit, but this would be his first time on air. Fortunately, he was enjoying the experience and was working with the team to balance the air bag pressures.
"The car has a type of active suspension, with the bags compensating in the corners, so it doesn't understeer at all," Jim explained. "In fact, I can even get it to oversteer a little. However, we're going to work on the ride height so we're able to ride the bumps on the track better," he continued.
With a best time of 1:34.1 at the start of the day, the AccuAir team had some work to do. Indeed, they managed to shave off about 2sec from that time in the second session, and continued to improve all morning.
The smallest class was potentially the scene of the biggest rivalry, with the Ford's chassis balance and torque hoping to topple the GTI's extra horsepower. FSWerks was also helped by company owner Raffi Kazanjian being very familiar with the track, helping him to find his rhythm quickly.
He was delighted with the handling of the Focus ST, impressed at its ability to rotate into turns and was even using the traction control in its Sport mode, although opted to turn it off for later sessions.
Perhaps the biggest problem was with the brakes that were overheating. The team had uprated the pads but everything else was stock, so the fluid was boiling and needed time to cool down.
With his track knowledge, Raffi put down a 1:31.5 in session one, and dropped to a 1:30.9 by the end of practice. It was an improvement but would it be enough to take the class win?
Their opponent was the team from Revo Technik, which was adjusting the front tire pressures and stiffening the rear dampers to improve the GTI's handling. They also decided to reduce the engine power since it was overwhelming the tires and causing more problems than it was solving.
So while they started the day with a best time of 1:32.2 in the first practice session, they'd improved to 1:30.7 by the third one, putting them slightly ahead of the Focus and staying in contention for class honors.
The largest class accounted for the remaining six cars and would continue to be hard fought all day. Winner of the dyno competition, our own european car magazine Project E46 M3 turbo, would be driven by Michael Essa while Alex snapped photos, which should have given us a slight advantage. However, boost control issues that had first surfaced on the dyno continued to plague the car, with Michael complaining of power fluctuations on track. The solution was to bypass the controller to isolate the problem and adjust pressure via the wastegate.
This seemed to work since the best time of 1:29.4 in the first session dropped to 1:28.2 in the second before Michael decided to sit out the third to preserve the tires and clutch for the timed session.
Meanwhile, european auto source, fastest RWD on the drag strip, drove to the track like many other competitors, and quickly got to work on the set-up. Since this was the first year competing with the BMW Z4M, a number of changes had to be made to the suspension. The team was stiffening the compression and rebound settings to try and get more out of the tires.
To be honest, they should perhaps have left it well alone since their fastest time in practice came on the second lap of the day, recording 1:26.8. This was followed up with a 1:27.3 and a 1:27.2 in the later sessions, but they never seemed to find the sweet spot again. Hopefully, they were saving something for the timed sessions.
For Joe Yang from Trinity Autosport, this was only his second opportunity to drive at Streets of Willow, so he focused on learning the track. In the first session, his best time was a 1:29.8, but his blown E92 BMW M3 appeared to have more to offer. In the remaining two sessions, Joe's best time was 1:28.5, and he appeared to have his hands full if he was to beat the more experienced drivers...
... Such as Michael Essa from GSR Autosport, who switched between our E46 M3 and the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Coupe his company had entered. During practice, he was typically low key, completing a handful of laps before deciding to park the car and save its tires for the timed laps. However, we were able to record a best time of 1:27.5 during practice, which put the Benz among the front-runners for a class win.
Meanwhile, Joey Seely from BBi Autosport was wishing he'd entered one of the company's 1000hp 911 Turbos, rather than his '85 Carrera. However, a lack of suitable tire sizes for the modern machinery meant we persuaded them to enter this nostalgic favorite. And while we enjoyed watching the 911 on-track, Joey was busy getting used to the new rubber. However, he was happy with how the car was performing and decided to make few changes.
Faced with more powerful opposition, Joey knew he had to make a Banzai lap to be in with a chance. "I know it's in the car but I'm not sure it's in me," he confessed, while surveying the modern machinery around him.
Finally, Platte Forme AG was making adjustments to the damper and sway bar settings on its BMW Z4 M Coupe. The times from the first practice session suggested the car was on the pace, with a time of 1:27.5 before tragedy struck early in the second session.
During their first lap, an oil hose blew off, showering the engine bay in oil. This left a trail of oil on the track and eventually got on the Z4's tires. By the time the car emerged into sight from the "Bowl" it was already airborne, having left the track before the high-speed esses. Traveling fast over the rough ground, Clint Boisdeau miraculously kept the car right-side-up and limped back to the pits. However, the track was closed for 20min while the oil spill was cleaned up.
The problem appeared to stem from a push-fit oil line for the ESS supercharger. Either the heat or stress from track use had caused it to come loose. The repair was relatively simple - a hose clamp resolved it - but the clean-up would end their practice time. Ensuring the oil was off the tires was paramount, but the team was worried about possible engine damage after running without lubricant. Fortunately, they were able to rectify the car and would return for the timed runs.