Taking On Trax: Exploring Limits

I’ve just entered the track at the world-famous Silverstone circuit. As we round the first corner, I can still feel the familiar pre-track day worries that I always seem to experience flitting about in my stomach. This time even more so – I’m in a car I’m completely unfamiliar with and I’m heading onto a circuit I’ve never actually driven. Doubts have been swirling around my mind, and nerves have well and truly kicked in.

I should backtrack for a second though. About two weeks before heading to the circuit, a mail dropped into my inbox from KW Suspension. They’d been putting together a plan for TRAX which would involve bringing two cars along and testing them out on track. Would I like to drive them and get some instruction from their Motorsport Sales and Technical Support guy/resident racing driver, Michael Grassl? Well, you know the phrases involving the pope and woods…

Covering events for Speedhunters is fantastic. Attending the shows is exactly the sort of thing that I’d be doing in my own spare time anyway, so getting to attend them officially is a perfect fit. Held at Silverstone circuit, TRAX is one of the UK’s biggest car shows and the 2013 event pulled together 18,000 attendees, hundreds of car clubs, a huge variety of aftermarket stalls and plenty of track action, including the Pro and Club Pro rounds of Time Attack.

But while just attending events is all well and good, for me, nothing beats getting behind the steering wheel and getting out on track. This is where my true JoyOfMachine kicks in. So when I found myself behind the wheel of KW’s Focus ST at the beginning of the day, I should have been excited, but my stupid nerves were getting the better of me. What if I couldn’t get to grips with the Focus? Would KW ever speak to me again if something happened?

I soon found I needn’t have worried though. Heading out onto the track, conditions were ideal and after a sighting lap to get acquainted with a circuit I’d only ever driven virtually before, it was time to start feeling the car out. The modifications to the Focus were mild – an uprated rear anti-roll bar, Scorpion cat-back exhaust, a set of sticky semi-slicks for grip and the obligatory KW suspension set-up (in this case a set of Variant 3 coilovers) but the results were proving impressive. Although there was a touch more body roll than I’m used to in my own car, once the weight shifted and the outside wheels loaded up, the car felt really planted in corners and encouraged me to push more.

Another few laps down, it was time to start reducing braking distances and feeling my way around the grip limits. The standard brakes were holding up pretty well, enabling me to dispatch some cars in the braking zones, but it was the handling that really shined. As a FWD car, the Focus inevitably suffers from understeer on the limit. But up until that point it was coping with the corners beautifully thanks to the set-up, and I was starting to go around many much more powerful cars.

Rounding Copse, I spied a Lancer Evolution VI up ahead. Uh-oh. As an Evo VI owner myself, I should have been appreciative of this other example of Mitsubishi machinery on track. Instead, the red mist descended and my sole aim became trying to get past it. While it was obviously quicker on the straights, the driver was perhaps not so well acquainted with its cornering capability and I reeled it in corner by corner before finally going past just after an exit thanks to my faster cornering speed.

Just then, I spied the other KW car in my mirrors. The Fiesta ST was coming up the outside of a train of cars on the back straight – steadily at first, then zooming past a huge bunch in one go as it outbraked everyone on circuit, slammed into the corner and came sailing up behind me. It remained glued to my bumper for a corner or two before getting bored, zipping past under braking and heading off into the distance. I tried to keep up but just didn’t have the confidence to brake as late into the corners. Damn these racing drivers.

The morning sessions were over and it was time to head back to the pits. With both cars back in KW’s garage, it was time to make some adjustments to the suspension. Michael commented that he was able to sling the Fiesta into Copse hard enough to get the back end loose which enabled him to combat the native understeer, but it wasn’t working as well for the tighter corners. So out came the tools and he got to work adjusting the compression and rebound settings.

I had a few hours to kill before my afternoon session so after checking out the rest of the cars on display in the KW garage, including the Forge Motorsport Golf (keep your eyes peeled for a full feature on this soon), headed out to take a walk around the show.

There was plenty on offer to keep the crowds entertained, including the Squibb Freestyle Motocross stunt team doing their best to discourage ET from making a return…

… the Live Action Arena where pro drivers were battling it out and everything from grip cars to drifters were showing off their skills…

… plenty of show cars on display, including Dave Rowe’s epic hillclimb Audi S1…

… and a mass of car clubs with over 3500 cars on display.

There was even the occasional surprise!

A few spots of rain begin to appear as I made my way back to the pits to have a nose round the garages. I’m always interested to check out the Time Attack series cars and catch up with some friends – this awesome silhouette-racer Beetle wasn’t having the best of luck on the day, having fixed a misfire too late to get a clean lap in. You can expect to read more about the car in a full feature soon though. By the time I emerged again, the drizzle had turned to a proper downpour. There were 40 minutes until my next session on track and the car was on semi-slicks. This could be interesting…

With everyone huddling in the garages to avoid getting soaked, it was time to check out the Fiesta that would be my ride for the afternoon. It’s been the subject of a light round of tuning, with the aim being to make it as fast as the Focus. A Forge Motorsport front-mounted intercooler, full Scorpion exhaust system and engine remap courtesy of Revo Technik boosts the power levels to even out the fight, a bigger brake kit allows for some later braking, sticky semi-slicks help with grip, and of course the car is fitted with a top suspension set-up from KW, in this case an in-development two-way adjustable Clubsport kit.

Before long, it was time for my afternoon session, so I jumped in and headed for the track entrance. This time I was accompanied by Michael Grassl, who would be sitting in alongside me and giving some instruction. Although the rain had nearly stopped, the track was soaked. Now my concern was turning to driving a sopping wet track on semi-slicks – it’s not something I’d experienced before myself but I’d certainly heard lots of stories about. None particularly good! The session before us had turned a bit chaotic, with cars sliding about all over the place and several offs. As a result, the sessions were running late and we spent 20 minutes sitting in the pit lane. Fooling around with the GoPro…

A marshal strolled down the line warning everybody to take it easy because of the slippery conditions. He informed us there were cars spinning at 25mph, which did wonders for my confidence. Michael seemed nonplussed, “We will see”.

The session was finally greenlighted and we tiptoed out onto the circuit. Thankfully the rain had stopped entirely by now and though there was no hope of a line drying out in our session, at least there was no standing water. Sighting lap completed, we started heading past cars that were being overly cautious. Just another half a lap in and we’d passed a handful cars already, the Fiesta feeling surprisingly grippy in the wet conditions, and nippy on the straights. As per Michael’s advice, to try and help, I aimed to stay a little wide of my normal line to chase the grip.

The really tricky part to get right was the section involving the Brooklands and Luffield corners – the slowest points of the circuit. Coming as they do after the Wellington Straight – the fastest point on the circuit – you have to brake heavily and ease into them. Too fast and you’ll just understeer straight off. Heading into Luffield, Michael suggested playing with the throttle and available grip a little to get an idea of the limits. I pushed a little more – the familiar understeer rumble started and the car washed wide. The transition was so progressive though and with the car feeling really planted, even in these tricky conditions, getting a real feel for the limits in this way was a big confidence booster.

The next lap round at this section, we were stacked up behind a few cars – an Impreza included. “Round the outside” was my next instruction. Round the outside of a AWD car in a Fiesta? I duly went for it, with the Fiesta coping impressively well to comply. I was shocked at how we were outperforming more powerful, supposedly better handling cars!

A few laps in and with me still braking relatively cautiously in the conditions, Michael advised me to hammer the brakes until the ABS started kicking in, to get a feel for how much braking power I could still count on. The result was surprising. Once the tyres were warmed up, we had more grip than I expected.

Time to put it to the test. We were heading down the Wellington Straight towards the Brooklands and Luffield corners. “Brake at the start of the kerb”, Michael said. At the kerb? I’ve been in a few cars with Michael at the wheel and know that he’s the king of the late brakers, but the start of the kerb? Most cars started braking not long after the bridge. I’d been using a turn-off at the side as my braking point in the dry, but the kerb was further on still. The man was clearly insane. I tried to keep my foot in, but ended up wussing out and braking before the kerb arrived.

Around the other side of the circuit, it was the Maggots corner that was demanding more bravery. “Don’t brake before the first turn” was my instruction here. While I didn’t actually feel as if I needed to slow down for the first left-hand kink, the long right-hander afterwards was a different matter and in my head there wasn’t enough space to brake in a straight line after the left turn. Trusting in the advice, I turned in on the throttle before hammering the brakes. The wheel was ever so slightly not straight when I started and the car squirmed about massively under the hard braking. Still, we managed to slow down sufficiently for the corner and picked off another couple of cars in the process.

Heading back towards the Brooklands/Luffield section, it was time to attempt the ‘braking at the kerb insanity’ again. In front of us was a small traffic jam of cars. Left to my own devices, I would have tucked in behind them and attempted to pick them off one by one, but my instructor was having none of it. “Down the outside. Take them under braking”. I laughed, made a silent plea to the driving gods and did as I was told, leaving the braking right til the kerb and sailing past at least five or six cars in the process. Okay, so he’s got a point.

Besides the two instructor cars that came past sideways in corners, the only real tussle I had with anyone was with a blue R32 Skyline. Despite being quicker on the straights, the little Fiesta was more than a match round the corners. After I first passed him, he took me again on the straight, but at the next corner, I dived past again under braking and with the benefit of a faster cornering speed, a few corners later I’d gained enough of a lead that he couldn’t catch me on the straight. Go the Fiesta!

All too soon, the chequered flag was being waved and my driving time was over. Far from being the nerve-wracking slide-fest that I thought it would be, the session in the wet was actually the most fun I’d had all day. Of course, the fact that I’d not crashed/spun/faced imminent death on my first time driving in the wet on semi-slicks demanded a bit of a celebration.

I’d definitely pushed my driving beyond what I’d normally have been comfortable with, especially given the conditions and the fact that I was in an unfamiliar car. But the combination of an excellent set-up and some great tuition meant that I’d felt pretty much like a hero out on track. The day had also been a huge testament what you can do with relatively little power but all the mods that really count (but are often overlooked, or downplayed in search of big power figures) – namely good suspension, geometry settings, and tyres, plus a bit of tuition.

To round the day off, I was then taken out for a session by another of KW’s drivers, Marc Kemp, in the Fiesta. Okay, so I might have felt like a hero when I was driving, but there’s nothing quite like sitting besides a racing driver to make you realise how far you’ve still got to go. There’s still much to learn…

Massive thanks to everyone at KW who contributed towards the day!

Words by Suzy Wallace
Instagram: speedhunters_suzy
Email: suzy@speedhunters.com

Photos by Jonathan Moore
Instagram: speedhunters_jonathan

Additional photos by Michael Whitestone.

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Previous TRAX coverage on Speedhunters

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