Track test: Porsche track tests

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A bit of fun

“It’s a bit of perverse fun, really” quipped AFN Porsche 928 S4 driver Tony Dron of his 1.43 ton mount in the BF Goodrich Porsche Club GB Championship. The same quote aptly summarises British attitudes to racing valuable machinery, especially Porsches.

Porsche Club GB is no ordinary motor club. The organisers of a series that has run since 1984, under previous sponsors such as Giroflex and Pirelli, trace their activities back to an exploratory meeting in Birmingham during September 1961. Their first official club meeting, drawing 120, was seven weeks later. By 1985, when the racing series (operated by their Motorsport Division, a “club within a club”) was approximately one year old, the main Porsche Club GB was celebrating its 25th anniversary and a membership of 5250. In 1989 that membership total has exceeded 8200, and that puts it up with some of the bigger clubs in Britain.

Not MGOC size, of course, since that is claimed to be over 50,000. Yet I find that Porsche total impressive, considering the comparatively small annual sales numbers. All further proof of the near fanatical enthusiasm generated for Porsches, even whilst the factory is under American sales duress, suffering a dramatic drop in production in recent years. Administration duties and stunning reserves of daily enthusiasm are demanded of the club Competitions Director, Jeffrey May. He oversees not just the BF Goodrich series cars detailed in this article, but also the radically modified machinery found in the Autofarm Championship and the new “starter series” that the club has been forced to initiate this year. The latter provides a novice alternative to the highly professional Goodrich circus.

In 1984 even stalwarts like then competition secretary John Farren, Motor Sport Division Chairman Gideon Hudson, or present Technical and Regulations Board members Steve Carr and John Lock, plus AFN’s Campbell Finley and Lawrence Hardwicke, plus Josh Sadler (“Mr Autofarm”, along with Carr) could not have imagined the over-subscribed, marque racing series that would result from their labours. True, an encouraging 22 Porsches sat on the Good Friday grid, but there was nothing to tell us that the series would escalate into “Britain’s biggest and most successful one-make production car championship”, which is the current assertion. In four or five practical encounters with the series I have found little of the bitterness that haunts most production-based formulae over cheating. The participating cars, even if a minority are scruffily prepared, are also the best advertisement for Porsche durability under duress that I can cite.

In the Porsche series those that make the rules frequently compete, or know the preparation business intimately, or both. To my astonishment they have none of the queasy non-enforcements or endless appeals that mar saloon car racing. It is not all sweetness and light, but I know that club determination to enforce their multiple class rules is unmatched in Britain. Technical and Regulations Board personnel include five familiar names, all in at the foundation of the series, plus Steve Kevlin. It is his AFN/Millicom 944 S2 that is tested here, and Steven is the Manager of Technical Services at Porsche Cars GB in Reading. That the club is prepared to discipline the biggest of names and argue the technical toss even with the Porsche gods at Weissach (whisper it, they were right!) cannot be argued.

Last season they even disqualified the “works” Reading representative, a 944 Turbo driven by Tiff Needell, from some hard-earned points on account of a cylinder head infraction. Central to the proven effectiveness of the regulations is a four class system that groups machinery together on the basis of competitiveness rather than cubic capacity. That does not mean slack racing in the lower classes whilst the “A” teams sweep up all the glory with the fastest combinations. For the championship can be won from the lower orders and the strength of support means frequent divided races, thus allowing the runners in Class C chances of winning outright in combined Championship qualifying rounds alongside Class D.

I cannot reproduce all the class choices, if you are that interested I am sure you will contact Jeffrey May at: Doric House, 56 Alcester Road, Studley, Warwickshire B80 7LG. However I would like to place the cars I have driven in perspective, so I must tell you the 944 5 belongs in category “B” and the 928 S4 in “A”. That classification means the 944 spends its life primarily fighting a 3-litre Carrera of 1976/77 specification from the vastly experienced Brian Robinson and the equally versatile Porsche preparation hands of Paul Edwards in Kilburn, North London. When this was written, Kevlin’s car had just a week between a successful 2-race appearance at Dublin’s Phoenix Park and the unknown demands of Birmingham SuperPrix to face. It led the series outright, and the B class on 84 points to the 79 of Robinson, but the friendly Geordie also held second in the slowest division. Brian had an 80 point total acrued in the D class with a 2.4 litre/130 bhp 911T versus 83 points of class leader Graham Leask.

The diversity of competition for the outright title can be seen from 79 points grasped for preparation specialist Edwards. Paul has been a class champion on two previous occasions, now driving a 911SC in class C. The “Big Boys” that form Tony Dron’s classmates usually have to be content with winning what they can outright, for none of them has developed sufficient advantage to build a championship winning points tally. On top at press time was Chris Millard’s historic RHD “Martini” 3-litre turbo on 68 points. The Birmingham jeweller was pursued by the 2.7 litre replicas of Barry Williams and former double class A champion, Bill Taylor. Tony Dron was fourth in the test S4, but likely to do better as his best race result of 1988 came at Birmingham, third overall.

You will notice that I have used words like “specification” and “replica” next to some car descriptions. This is not slack journalese, but reflects that the regulations do allow you some basic bodywork freedoms in spoilers and the use of cheaper glassfibre wings, plus the ability to build a replica of a particular model, providing it is exact. The bodywork freedoms allow the best production aerodynamics to be shared by many eras of a particular model, thus all the 911s tend to look confusingly alike with “ducktail” rear wings and front spoilers. In fact all pre-74 examples are allowed 1973 pattern aerodynamics: post ’74 they can fit anything up to 1984 spoilers, but there are alternatives to consider such as the fitment of 3.0 appendages (1974-80) or 1971-81 Sport components. The list does not end there, but I think you see the point.

This is also extended to 924 owners and allows Turbo aerodynamics, or for any 928 of 1987 onward, to don S equipment. In the case of the test 944 S2 it is merely relevant to note that the car comes from the production line with a body that even GC couldn’t tell from that of its turbocharged brothers in our September 1989 full test. The replica business is one that justifiably arouses heated emotions in our correspondence pages but I hope that the following will illuminate the 1989 racing Porsche practicalities. Only two seasons ago there were genuine RS types racing, one of them purchased for under £7000 in the early eighties. They became valuable, but not in comparison to the situation today, where the £100,000 mark is a memory and the owner of one genuine example tells me offers of £150,000 plus really are being made for lightweights. So the practice of racing RS replicas has spread throughout the field: I have driven one genuine 2.7 RS the Neil Bainbridge prepared example for Chester Wedgewood that was driven by Dron and Needell, amongst others, and two replicas and preferred the original to any production Porsche I have driven. However, the replicas are an obvious financial necessity, given the scale on which the RS type races, despite the worrying possibility that they may be passed off subsequently as the genuine article.

Class A is currently open to Porsches rated from 210 to 330 bhp, performance equality maintained largely by minimum weights imposed to plus or minus 1%. For instance, the 330 bhp Turbo Sport is crippled by a 1600kg/3520Ib penalty whilst the 210 bhp RS carries but 995 kg and is a nimble proposition that can win on almost any track. Our test cars are regulated at 1450kg for the 928 1460 kg following an intensive winter “diet”, and 1160 kg further 928 and 185 bhp a ton or its younger brother: the 2.7 RS remains a potent offering partially because of its 214.9 bhp per ton ratio . . .

The club allows plus or minus 5% DIN peak power attained, but it they feel the spirit of the event has been contravened they will disqualify the offender even if the power is within prescribed limits. In the case of our test cars, the 920 was presented at an official 320 bhp rather than the 330 bhp of the 928 (it has never been dismantled, never mind “blueprinted”) but I subsequently found the rev limiter had been elevated well beyond the 6000 rpm I was allowed, a permitted practice. The 944 S2 employed an old test engine and rear transaxle from Weissaeh, the 3-litre four cylinder rated at 211 bhp, but is now much happier to reach for the 6400 rpm red-line than when I first drove it. In both 944 and 928 the cockpits are recognisable as those of the production car. Of course there are racing seats, safety harness and comprehensive rollover cages, but only the 928 has a sportier steering wheel Momo) and information is derived front standard red needle, white on black dials for both. Naturally they are dissimilar to drive, but since the 928 is so different to any circuit car I have experienced previously. I will begin at the point where its 4957cc V8 (100mm x 78.9mm) is snuffling softly on tick over. The manual 5-speed is still not the most attractive feature, slightly ponderous as it selects first gear, which fooled me after the straightforward 944 by having first in the classic, isolated, competition “dog leg” pattern.

There is nothing ponderous about the acceleration, although T. Dron has conscientiously learned new grid tactics in an effort to offset the natural advantage of a rear engine 911. “We suffered a lot in the early days” he recalls, still smarting at the remarks of our colleagues on Motoring News, but we did some testing at a military track in Surrey and put people at 25 yard intervals and timed each stage, even getting away in second! The ideal is to have it at about 2800 revs, drop the clutch fiercely and don’t open the throttle too much. It is difficult to keep your foot in one place on the throttle, but that technique means we have been leading for the first 25 yards. Unfortunately, by the time you get somewhere like Quarry at Castle Combo, 911 acceleration is ultimately going to regain the advantage.”

All the controls have smooth but somewhat numb feedback. Associated with the sheer size and weight of the 928, plus the low driving position, you feel cocooned within. This limousine of sportscar racing has the worrying characteristic of leading you into deep trouble, before telling you the depth of manure you are entering.

First raced in standard trim in 1988, Dron reported “it was capable of finishing fifth overall, which is quite something for a luxurious road car.” Now the suspension of the S4 has been redeveloped for racing in association with Derbyshire specialist Rhoddy Harvey Bailey, a charming specialist who seems at home cutting sway whilst preserving ride in a Range Rover, or finding lap time and poise in a formula car. Rhoddy said candidly, “I have more moments in this car than any other that I drive, but now we have arrived at a set up that is not too harsh to destroy the grip over bumps; one that makes use of the rubber that has to support considerable weight, all without adopting extreme wheel camber angles.” Under Club rules damper and spring selection is free (the latter in ferrous metals) and you can use “any Porsche production anti-roll bar.” For the 928 that has meant “reset Bilsteins, much harder springs (but not doubling the standard rate, or anything ridiculous like that)” and a wide spread in anti-roll bar diameters: 30mm front and the slimmest rear they could find, 18mm. The latter came from a 1979 version of the 928, and they would go softer, if there was such a production option.

Tony Dron commented that Harvey Bailey’s work “has allowed us to reconnect the ABS braking, and now the brakes are one of the strongest features of the car. It is quite capable of outbraking 911s and it is a particularly fast car through wet conditions.”

As you would hope, the V8 is another attraction. It reaches out to the redline with stunning conviction, and only the fact that Mr Dron is forty feet taller than me stopped an incursion into what I thought were forbidden red zones. You actually need a rather longer straight “perhaps the old Reims or Spa tracks” says Tony to obtain a maximum significantly above that of the 911.

A white 928 is still pretty awesome thundering along Snetterton’s gruesomely titled “Revett” section in fifth, when it displays 130mph.

I cannot say that, in seven laps allowed, I came to terms with wielding the 928’s bulk confidently at 100mph plus through the long right that is Coram. Or that I accurately gauged the adhesion of the BF Goodrich TA/R1 control tyres (245/45 R) on 16 inch wheel diameters of 8 and 9 inch widths. In slow corners I inevitably applied too much throttle and saw why nearly every driver has spun this machine in earlier forays. In the fourth gear corners I used the generous brakes too hard, too often, to discover that a 928 likes to oversteer, whatever the velocity.

Suffice it to say that Dron + 928 = a competitive lap time proposition, but that first race win still eluded them with four championship events to complete. Tony is at pains to point out that the car is much better than anyone gives it credit for. The suspension improvements have made it a more predictable car to race, but only deleted a second or so from lap times. I can only say that I was relieved not to damage the handiwork of Dave Humphrey and Peter Caulfield. By contrast the 944 slipped on like an old friend. I had found the turbocharged car for Needell a superior Cosworth Sierra in an earlier encounter at the same circuit, and had already experienced the Kevlin coupe in Holland. Then it ran extremely competitively even for this stranger. The net result of all that was an immediate rapport and a 1m 19.64s (85.9mph average) best lap . . . about 4 seconds a lap faster than I went in the 928, and 1.2 seconds slower than the car’s previous best at Snetterton.

During our test session Dron lapped in lm 16.7s (89.2 mph) to show what the AFN luxury goods centre can deliver. Aside from the good nature of the understeer-biased 944 chassis and powerful but non-ABS braking system, the most pleasant track discovery was the engine. I had not been a great fan of the counter-balanced four and its 2990cc (104 x 88mm) on the 1988 press launch, but the tough treatment meted out to this ex-factory unit worked wonders. There was little of the breathlessness I recalled at the standard 5800rpm power peak, and the power remained supremely accessible, throughout the rpm range. It also makes a nice noise, though I’m sure such juvenile thoughts cut no ice with its technically aware driver. The John Titcombe-tended 944 is actually last season’s 2.5 litre racing 944S, suitably enlarged and updated to S4 specification.

The suspension was still undergoing damper changes during my drive, but it now shares many damper and spring parts with 220 or 250 bhp turbo cousins. It also shares the rear tyre size of the 928(245/45), but the front TA/R1 control tyres are of 225/50 section on a 7 x 16 inch rim. The 944 S2 remains a track favourite of mine. Bearing in mind it literally costs thousands less than a 911, yet offers a better balanced chassis and similar speed I shall look at its road abilities with new respect as well.

Our thanks to AFN for arranging our fine Snetterton day. Their plans for the 1990 competition were not known at press time, but both cars were expected to be offered for sale, open to offers above £35,000 for the 928 and £10,000 less for the 944,” to be replaced by new models for 1990.” We can also be sure that the Porsche Club will be back with the series which proved enthusiasm still burns brighter than simply posing amongst the Porsche ranks. JW

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