Under scrutiny -- Trakstar

While the World Rally Championship is the Ford Motor Company's number one priority in motorsport this year, the televised and highly popular British Touring Car Championship is too important to vacate after several years' domination. The difference is, however, that the change of rules which has led to the ineligibility of the turbocharged Sierra Cosworths has meant that Ford no longer has a certain winner on its hands.

In the past Ford have had the advantage of having developed the RS500 into a virtually unbeatable race-winner within the fairly strict restrictions of the Group A regulations. After the early development work, Ford simply did not need to get too deeply involved and it was left to the individual teams to compete against each other. This time around, however, if Ford were to stay in the championship, they needed to build a car for the new regulations, break their allegiances with most of the teams for logistical reasons and decide whether to prepare and run the car themselves or nominate a team to run it for them. The other alternative, of course, was to withdraw from the series altogether.

It says much for the success of the series, however, that Ford have been tempted to stay in, despite not having budgeted for it last year. The British Touring Car Championship is the most popular televised motorsport in this country with an accumulated audience across all 13 races last year on BBC TV's Grandstand of 39 million viewers, which averages out at 3 million per race comparing favourably with the 2-1/2 million of Grand Prix racing.

Having decided to continue in the championship, Peter Ashcroft, Ford's Competitions Manager, approached Trakstar team directors Mike Smith and Robb Gravett in July last year to run the works Ford. There would be no cash, but the team would not only benefit from the invariable advantages a tie-up with a major manufacturer brings, but also have the fruits of Ford's research and development programme.

Trakstar is still a young team, but since its formation in 1989 it has proved a front running outfit, co-director Robb Gravett winning first time out and 3 further victories bringing him to within an ace of clinching a class victory, while in 1990 he achieved 9 wins, 8 pole positions and 5 lap records in the 13 race series on his way to becoming Champion.

Inevitably several approaches were made from four other manufacturers in the ensuing winter months, but Gravett and Smith decided to exploit the opportunity given to them by Ashcroft to develop the RS500 successor. Apparently three of those four other manufacturers have since decided to sit on the sidelines this year adopting a wait and see policy having failed to entice Trakstar to develop their cars.

It would be too easy to be fooled by the familiar shape of the car and assume that Ford and Trakstar are running a detuned Cosworth, but nothing could be further from the truth, for there is no carryover at all on the new car from the RS500. There was even some debate as to which bodyshell to use. To begin with it was thought that the standard Sapphire was the best choice as it had a better Cd factor, but in fact they arrived back at the 4x4 as the 6 kg of downforce generated by that model's rear wing was required.

Delivery of the new bodyshell was not made until mid-January which then underwent 600 man hours transforming it into a racing machine and paring its weight to just 270 kg before being painted into sponsor's Shell's colours. The final product is therefore the result of some painstaking work. The roll-cage, for example, is very much more complex than before, and is made of a lightweight aerospace steel, specially designed titanium nuts and bolts are used throughout, the door panels are made out of carbonfibre as the standard door trim is not required by the new regulations, and even the door mirror has been changed with the consequent weight saving of some 90% over the standard item. The cars will also be the first in the series to have a digital display dashboard and full on-board telemetry.

Much of the work can be credited to Allan Wilkinson, the chief engineer who has brought to the team a wealth of race engineering experience that goes back many years to Ford in the Seventies, Toyota, Audi and latterly Mitsubishi. One of his primary objects has been to get a 50/50 balance, taking the weight away from the top of the car and relocating it where it was needed to bring the car back up to the 1050 kg weight limit.

The Mountune-prepared 2-litre engine has been the subject of dyno work since the end of last November and a great deal of effort has gone into finding the correct length of the inlet trumpets. The unit itself has been located in a very different position in the engine bay while the gearbox has been relocated so that it is just some 6 inches in front of the rear axle.

18 inch Dymag wheels replace the 17 inch ones from last year while the car will run for the third successive year on Yokohamas. This season, however, they will lose their unique position in this respect and be joined by some 10 other similarly shod cars on the grid although Trakstar will still have exclusive use of the latest compounds. The front brakes from AP are a little smaller than those used on the RS500 while the suspension is fabricated out of magnesium. If all this was priced out, the first car, which took to the track on April 1, would have cost in the region of £150,000, engine work alone being around £20,000.

Altogether three cars will be made for drivers Robb Gravett, Mike Smith and customer Sean Walker, but rather than produce them all for the first race, Trakstar have hedged their bets in case they have miscalculated and got it all wrong, working on the principle that it is easier to change one car than three. Therefore the car Gravett raced on April 1 was used by Walker on April 14 while Gravett took over the new car. Smith is scheduled to take to the tracks in late May. Despite this immense investment and the enormous amount of work involved, everybody at Trakstar and Ford are well aware of the strength of the opposition, particularly from the BMW teams who have had a number of years to build up their data banks of knowledge. Whether Graven can retain his championship this year will be seen over the following months, but if he doesn't, it will not be for want of trying. -- WPK