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There's a lot to learn, starting with the driving, then onto the maintenance and set-up, and even the media and thinking about sponsorship.
Learning to Drive
Learning to drive fast is best done in a low-powered car with no electronics to cover mistakes. This is just what Ginetta aims at with the G40 and the GRDC championship. So what do electronic controls do? Stop you spinning, primarily, which I found out as soon as I got into a Ginetta on a damp day at Silverstone. I'd only ever spun a car once before, but on the day at Silverstone I must have spun four times at least. My mistakes were either applying power too much and too early, or holding the lock too hard on the exit of a corner. In my 911 and even in my C230 daily driver, the stability management system controls excessive power inputs to the driving wheels so that it's actually difficult to spin.
After six track days in the G40, I'm slowly finding the speed. Taking the racing line and hitting the apexes is not a problem, but maintaining momentum through the corner is my challenge. On a wet day, that's even more difficult, until you learn the limit of grip in your car and your set-up. Even then, there are spins, but you have to show a certain amount of aggression (or assertiveness, as instructors like to call it), so spins and track excursions will happen now and again.
Primarily however, I remember four cornering principles when going around, plus the mantra the MSA teaches you when taking an ARDS race licence: speed is a combination of smoothness, accuracy and consistency.
On a car like the G40, you can adjust many parameters that will affect handling. The easy settings are tyre pressures, damper return / bounce, and anti-roll bar stiffness. The latter will have a big effect on your understeer or oversteer and the first two will also affect steer and levels of grip and feel. It's not at all simple, and I have adopted a beginner's approach to to fix the anti-roll bars to soft at back and medium front, then just make one setting change per day on the dampers, depending on how slippy the track is. If the track is dry, I'll stiffen the dampers. As for tyre pressures, I'll measure them as soon as I come off track and keep them level all round at the recommended pressure when hot (which is around 28-30 PSI in the G40).
Other settings are best left to the experts, and for that you'll need to pay a team to do some set-up work on your car. I chose Ginetta specialists Fox Motorsports, and they will check through your car and set up the ride height (and corner weighting), cambers, toe-in, and show you how to do spanner checks for faults that develop in the harsh environment of a race track.
Corner weighting and ride height are the first things I would ask a specialist to set up on my car.
Driving a car on the race track will put big demands on all components. I always spend half a day checking over the car after a track day. As well as the spanner check, this also includes washing off any of the track debris and grime from under the car and in the engine bay. There's a lot to write about maintaining the G40, and I have a separate manual for that.
I also keep a record of the set-up changes that I make during track or post-track maintenance.
Media and Sponsorship
This is not everyone's bag, and I would only recommend taking it seriously if you're intending to make a career out of race-car driving. As an amateur newbie, you won't get sponsorship, except for help and possibly some small financial support from family or friends, or your own business. It won't cover a racing season at all, so you need to fund the car and the track days, plus race entries yourself. In the right championship, you can do this for a reasonable amount, affordable to your budget, such as the GRDC, Caterham Academy or 750 MC's Locost and Trophy series.
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I looked at buying or building a track-adapted car several times, including BMW 3 Series Compacts (750 MC championship eligible) and Renault Clio 172s. The price was about £3-5,000 for a built track car, apparently road legal. In my view, the problem with buying a track-prepared car is that you don't know how reliable it is, or how legal for MOTs. If I were building a track car, I know I would have to make decisions, and possibly compromises about taking equipment out (such as airbags or electronics) or adding specialist parts that may cause difficulty for a road-going vehicle (such as lowering springs or camber).
I had the Porsche sitting in the garage depreciating slowly, so I decided to switch it for a factory-prepared race car, rather than buying a cheap track car as an extra to the Porsche. I found that the Caterham 7 and the Ginetta G40 were the two main options. I wasn't, initially, considering the race championship options, although both came with that option.
I looked at the Caterham in the factory in Crawley, but I still find them a bit old-fashioned in appearance, and lacking a roof. If I'm spending the amount of money they ask, I want a car that ticks all the boxes, and Caterhams didn't do that for me. I was looking at virtually the same car in the 1980s when I visited the factory in Caterham.
And so to Ginetta, and the G40. I have been watching these cars as they support the British GT Championship, and although they seem a little tail-happy to drive, they are exciting to watch. I liked the strong, tubular chassis and the clamshell hood for efficient access and quick repair of front-end race damage.
I filled in a form on the Ginetta website to enquire about the road-going version of the G40. The response was instant, and by phone from the Commercial Director. They said they can provide a G40 road car, which has a bigger 2.0 litre engine, but why don't I sign up for the racing version, with the 1.8 litre engine? The race package was cheaper but the car is not so powerful. The 2.0 litre road version is also suitable for track, but can't be used for the racing.
I decided to go racing, as it was now or never. The GRDC package included car, race licence application and entry into four rounds supporting the British GT Championship. Now that's a quick way into a professional race series if ever there was one. But there's a steep learning curve ahead, as I'll describe in the next posts.
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This is the first article I intend to write about my transition from road cars and track days to motorsport. I haven't competed in any motor races in my life, but it's something I've always wanted to do, and now appears to be the time to make the move. Here's the story, and in future posts, updates on how I'm getting on.
So what's my experience of cars and motorsport? I've always wanted to get on track but in the 1980s, when I started driving, I didn't seem to have the right contacts and certainly no money. Track days didn't really exist, and karts were just something you found at fairgrounds, and not something you could buy or try out. How things have changed, for the better.
My first experience on track was in Finland in the 1990s when a friend introduced me to his hobby, which was mini racing and karting. I was hooked and soon bought myself a Dino Kart with a 100cc 2-stroke Yamaha engine, from Henri Lahokoski's shop in Tampere. Before I could use the kart more than two times, I moved back to England, and the kart had to go due to other priorities.
Back in England in 2000, my sister bought me a Formula Ford track experience at Donington Park. This was a good one, and lasted the whole day, with a qualifying session around an oval of the Melbourne Hairpin, and then out on circuit for lead-follow laps. I surprised myself by qualifying at the front, so I was setting the pace down through the Kraner Curves, with very little experience of what to do, but loving it.
My next time on track came in 2013 at Lydden Hill, when I had bought a Porsche Cayman 987.1. I had upgraded to faster and faster road cars after my return to England, and I thought the Cayman was the ultimate, most expensive car I would ever buy. I had a great time at Lydden, but... I boiled the brakes, broke a tyre, etc. And there starts another phase of getting hooked... You upgrade the brakes and possibly the engine mapping, and then you think of suspension modifications, and on it goes. Soon you find that it might be better to invest in a more capable road-track car, or just convert something cheap into a track car.
In my case, I found the money (via a bank loan) to buy an even more expensive car, which I thought was the ultimate road and track car, the Porsche 911. Mine was a 997 Gen 2 basic Carrera, purchased from Paragon, close to me in East Sussex. It's a fantastic car and Paragon are brilliant at supporting their customers, helping them with ideas, including advice for track excursions. I took the 911 to Goodwood, Mallory Park and Brands Hatch.
Each time I went on track, I realised that I had to do something to make the 911 track-suitable, like spare wheels and tyres just for track, camber adjustments, anti-roll bar adjustments, upgraded brake fluids, and more. I stopped at doing the "more", like lowering springs, and reluctantly told myself that the 911 was too valuable for me to take on track, and it was never going to be suitable for the tough track driving I was starting to experience.
So I was looking for a solution, went to a hill climb at Firle, saw lots of specialist cars, spoke to a couple of friends about options, and made the decision to change the 911. I wasn't using it much on the road, was nervous of breaking it on track, and it was mostly preserved in the garage. This was not my way to get on track.
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