The Phlegmatic Swede
SAAB and the race track are far from synonymous in enthusiast eyes. Yet the Swedish marque which conquered the Monte Carlo Rally, as well as scoring four victories on our own RAC Rally, has a track record, one that stretches from two stroke triples in the European Touring Car series to 900 Turbo in Finnish one marque racing. Recently MOTOR SPORT has had the chance to see how that circuit heritage has been upheld and to assess what is offered to those who want more than the standard 175 bhp of the production T16 2-litre engines.
Best known for their record of successful participation with Ford products in the annual Snetterton 24 hours, Abbott Racing tackled a full 1988 season of Uniroyal Production Saloon Car Championship Racing with a 5-door Saab 9000 116. Abbott’s Ford achievements included outright victory in 1988 with the Sierra RS Cosworth of Lionel Abbott/ Graham Scarborough. The 1989 Saab was driven throughout a tough season by Lionel Abbott whilst brother Ed (a former Jaguar development engineer) developed and administered the project. Prepared with the modest objective of beating the normally aspirated BMW M3 and “getting in amongst the slower Sierra Cosworths”, the Saab production racing vehicle achieved its inaugural season aspirations. “Part of our crusade has been to show that a fairly unlikely car can do
reasonably well,” felt Ed Abbott. It scored one third place overall (OuIton Park) and several fourth positions. Enough to inspire parallel development of a considerably more rapid road car, one that we also tried after track testing the racing model at their home circuit, Snetterton.
Ed Abbott related how his Manningtree company in Essex became involved in racing against the Ford odds. “We had prepared cars for Charles Tippett in 1987 (the 1988 Saab Champion) and the Celebrity vehicle for 1988, all in the one-make series that Saab and Mobil had jointly promoted in Britain. We wanted to keep the link beyond the end of that series. We were allowed access to a written-off press car and a body to rebuild the same. We started on Boxing Day, 1988, and literally built the car up from scratch, including the design of an aluminium roll cage, one made up for us by John Aley.” On the face of it, the transverse front engine layout of the sturdy 5-door offered little encouragement to a racing team faced with the job of penetrating the reardrive monopoly that exists in European production racing beyond 200 bhp. In the case of the Saab there are two other factors that proved relevant in the basic
design for track work: the engine is canted at 20 degrees forward and the Swedish engineers had laid out their car on a philosophy of maximum passenger space, not air management under maximum boost at continuous full throttle.
The Garrett AiResearch 103 turbocharger was nicely placed in the forward air stream, but without the vented bonnet air management system of the production Cosworth design (absent for Sapphire RS), it was hard to get the air to cool the hardest worked ancillaries under pressure. In compensation the intercooler was generously proportioned, immediately before the water radiator. The Saab exhibited a strong dislike for quick lefthanders (the comparatively unladen inner driven wheel skimming the tarmac readily) and running in the 1989 British summer heat at the maximum 260 bhp capability. During the season the team incorporated up to two oil coolers, mounted forward in the engine bay. This overcame the overheating problem at circuit speeds, but the team still found the Saab was happiest producing “around 40 bhp at our racing regulation maximum of 1.1 bar boost,” commented Ed Abbott. The Ford was restricted to much the same
power, regulated to 0.9 bar maximum boost.
The 16v, incline 4-cylinder, Saab has an iron block and alloy DOHC head, its basic strengths emphasised by the production provision of a steel crankshaft. The standard capacity of 1985cc is obtained on a 90 x 78 mm bore and stroke. Compression ratio is amongst the higher registers found in current turbocharged car (9:1), but Bosch LH electronic fuel injection and micro-processor management have always ensured that it is amenable to a wide variety of fuel grades.
Ed Abbott commented of the transmission components, “There is nothing you can legally do under these regulations, so we use the usual 5-speed and final drive ratio, but I must say we have been most Impressed with the basic strength under racing conditions. There have been no problems with driveshafts or joints.”
The brakes were allowed the luxury of racing fluid grades, plus Mintex 171 harder pad linings, but the ventilated front discs and solid rears remain subject to the action of a third generation anti-lock braking system from Alfred Teves GmbH. Because there is no drive to the rear wheels and the weight mass is concentrated at the front end, it is particularly easy for the back brakes to lock up momentarily under racing duress and I was (wisely) warned about this aspect of racing front-drive manners before departure from the pits.
Although the Abbotts look forward to the comparative freedoms of 1990 International Group N, their 1989 Saab handled very well on road legal BF Goodrich tyres. Their 205/50 VR 15 proportions were mounted on one of many alloy wheel designs used by the Saab factory, in this case an American market multi-spoke unit of 6.5 inch rim width. Damping duties are shared between Leda front units (again to an Abbott drawing) and Bilstein rears.
Ed Abbott commented of the suspension layout, “There is more potential to lower the ride height than for the Cosworth Ford as the Saab is set higher in the first place. I have been very impressed with the layout of the Saab dead rear axle, it seems extremely well located and is one of the best features of the car in a racing application.”
Other particularly strong points are the straightline speed between 90 and 120 mph, and the fact that this front-drive design seems to turn into corners as readily as a rear-drive machine, perhaps even faster if the corner is the most common right hand variety. Then the driver’s weight helps counteract frontdrive tendency to wheelspin under full boost. I can verify the high speed ability from personal observation at Zandvoort. There I watched the mirror images from Steven Kevlin’s championship winning AFN Porsche 944 S2 and realised that big White Saab, the one towering over the rear panels, was gaining along the straights! Zandvoort, and a session at Jarama with the (then) 204 bhp Carlsson Saab
9000 had also told me that driving the Abbott Saab, even on the most benign of sunny days at Snetterton, would call for almost as much adjustment of driving technique as the AFN Porsche 928.
The cabin is conventional enough, much of the standard Saab trim and instrumentation remaining. There is the vital fabrication of an aluminium footrest and the usual production racing forest of boost gauges, for turbocharger input was electronically and mechanically governed during 1989. Thus there is a digital readout for scrutineering purposes, plus the standard equipment and an analogue gauge that flickered around the 1.2 bar marking for most of my session. Naturally oil pressure (65 to 70 lb in) and water temperature are monitored, but the latter caused no concern in autumn.
We were advised to use up to 6200 of the displayed 7000 rpm maximum, finding that the straightline maximum corresponded to 5750 rpm (approximately 135 mph on these tyres), which is an extremely competitive performance along the Revett straight. Initial acceleration is similarly impressive, accompanied by the rasp of a side exhaust that lacks the droning resonances of the Sierra Cosworth.
The Personal 3-spoke steering wheel operates accurate power steering and — located by the clinging combination of Sparco seat and comprehensive harness — it is initially hard to judge just how the 9000 is reacting to cornering forces. In fact its behaviour varies more than any other track car I have appraised, dependent on the nature of the corner ahead.
As the regular driver had commented, the Saab is a phlegmatic Swede. Unlike a Mini, it does not like to be pushed into a corner beyond its tyre grip limits; you never feel as though you have driven at 10/10ths,” reported Lionel. This trait is particularly marked at the slowest right hand bends of Snetterton. Matching full boost torque to available tyre grip (and the need to ease the steering lock for maximum front-drive traction) serves the driver with an initially unappetising dilemma between orthodox line and the traction requirements of a now enraged 2-litre turbo.
Whilst “slow in, fast out” may seem to cover the Saab circuit character, it is far from the whole truth. Present it with a quick right — of which there are an abundance at Snetterton — and the 9000 settles into its annexation with rewarding speed. The “Bombhole” at Snetterton is a particularly evil concoction, one that features a cambered fourth gear dive into an apex which must be correctly clipped. Failure to comply puts any car in immediate jeopardy against the closing barriers, or into a very bad frame of mind, and an uncertain attitude for the following Coram curve.
At the Bombhole the Saab surprised us all, even creator Ed Abbott. It simply motored into the correct position with absolute consistency, demanding little effort from the driver and gaining considerably on the inevitable Cosworth companion that the team had brought along for comparison. In contrast, the worst feature of the car was the brakes. They lulled one into thinking that all was present and correct
with plenty of initial bite, but during any serious application the ratio between increased brake pedal effort and the rate at which the car slowed appeared to go through some physical transformation that I have not encountered before. The more you pressed, the slower the rate of retardation! At least they were not powerful enough to produce the kind of onewheel slides and scares that are familiar to circuit racing Sierra RS drivers, especially over bumpier corner approaches.
Aside from an occasional wriggle under 100 mph exit duress at Riches, and the battle of traction versus line under third gear turbocharger boost from Sears and the Esses, there were remarkably few handling quirks to absorb. My initial worries about difficulties on a 928 scale were unfounded and the accessible power between 4000 and 6000 rpm, backed by good torque, contributed to a more satisfying performance than expected. The Mobil 1-backed 9000 settled from an initial 1.22.88s (83.26 mph average) to lm 21.44s (84.74 mph), close to the pace planned for 24 hour racing at this circuit. Owing to severely worn brake pads, that was a competitive time “on the day” and left me with an insufferable aura of smugness. To put the cream on the day, the Abbotts also let me have a brief outing in a road conversion which turns the 9000 into a more aggressively rapid device than the factory Carlsson/Sport conversions that I have sampled. Those with an eye for technical detail may have noted that I said the production racer had the original T03 turbocharger specification, one shared by their converted road car. If you know your
Saabs you will also be aware that the factory have now switched over to the smaller T25 unit. Power is not officially cut in standard form (still quoted at 175 bhp), but the Carlsson quotes have tumbled from the 1988 specification of 204 bhp for the UK market to 195 bhp, or 185 bhp with a catalytic convertor.
For Saab the smaller turbocharger reasoning is logical; they had decided to answer criticisms of turbo lag and on/off power output by installing a smaller unit. Initially they could only source this with Mitsubishi in Japan, but after approximately 12 months Garrett AiResearch were able to offer them the T25 alternative at a competitive price, so the current 9000 features that water-cooled casing and compact sizing.
The Abbott road car had reprogrammed engine management, a maximum boost indicated as 1 bar (14.2 psi), Saab Bilstein dampers, Abbott replacement springs and the considerable competence of Bridgestone RE71 covers. These were of 255/45 ZR dimensions upon 6.5 x 16 inch wheels, diameters that they wish they could run in competition.
In action this machine proved to be the “Cosworth-9000” ripping away from standstill to a 125 mph cruise with just as much conviction as the track machine. I noted from the computer that Ed Abbott was averaging 24.3 mpg, and the same instrument also reported that you can ease off the boost so much at a constant 100 mph that the equivalent of 28 mpg is returned.
The car was presented as nothing more than an interesting development path, one that would need taming in respect of high speed pinking and wet roundabout manners, were it to be sold to the public. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but suspect that all but the hardest drivers would be better served by the 195 bhp Carlsson in today’s traffic. But for those who do not want the expense of buying a complete Carlsson? Certainly worth further development time…
For the 1990 season Lionel Abbott happily told us, “We expect to move to the International Group N formula that the BRDC are promoting with the BRSCC. We have already received and begun to construct a new 9000 body from Sweden. One that will feature a fully integrated roll cage and the additional welding that is allowed by that category.
“This also means we will be using slick racing tyres, have a free choice of road springs and be allowed a limited slip differential. The organisers have already said that they are going to review the competitiveness of competing cars after three races because they do not want to see the Cosworths running away with everything, so we have high hopes of even better things to come. Perhaps even a couple of overseas races too, because the beauty of these regulations is that they do apply everywhere, and I hope we will be able to take advantage of that.” So do we. JW